This is the belief of legends on opposite ends of the equation, former Springbok captain John Smit and ex-England and British & Irish Lions prop Jason Leonard.
The decorated duo appeared on the second episode of the South African Rugby Legends Association’s #RugbyUnites Webinar Series on Tuesday evening, in which they reflected on their roles in the rich rivalry and looked ahead to the Lions’ return to South African shores next year.
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Leonard was a member of the 1997 Lions side who bested the Springboks 2-1, while Smit led the men in Green and Gold to a hard-fought 2-1 win in the 2009 series, setting the stage for an epic showdown between the powerhouses’ modern-generation gladiators in 2021.
Leonard will return to South Africa as Chairman of the Lions next year.
“In 1997, the Springboks were world champions, and again in 2009 and it’s the same for next year’s tour," said Leonard.
"It’s great...you couldn’t make it up. There’s a lot of pressure and expectation on South Africa.”
The 2009 series was a brutal battle - arguably the most physical of all-time - and the two giants anticipate another almighty tussle.
“The wonderful thing about this series is it always comes down to the five most intelligent and talented players on the field, the tight five,” quipped Smit.
On a serious note, Smit believes the Lions handed them the initiative in 2009 with the selection of Phil Vickery at tighthead. A titan in his prime, the England front-rower was in the twilight of his career and went on to be emasculated by a young and hungry Tendai Mtawarira in the opening Test in Durban.
Even though it was his 11th Test, it was his starring role in South Africa’s 26-21 win at Jonsson Kings Park that skyrocketed Mtawarira’s career while effectively ending veteran Vickery’s.
“We were under huge pressure because I had shifted to tighthead and we were going to be absolutely gored [at scrum time], but it didn’t go to plan [for the Lions],” said Smit, who’d moved to No 3 to accommodate Bismarck du Plessis at hooker.
“I almost thought that the selection of the Lions possibly gave us a get out of jail card because they didn’t select their strongest scrummaging side right from the start and that gave us a sniff.
“The scrums are going to be a massive deciding factor in next year’s series and I don’t think the Lions will make that error in judgment [again] because the Springboks had such a powerful scrummaging performance [in the 32-12 win over England in last year’s World Cup final].”
Mtawarira, an apex predator on the pitch and gentle giant off it, reflected on facing the all-star outfit and that legendary performance during a recent webinar for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
“Playing against the Lions is probably the next best thing to playing in a World Cup. It's such a big occasion and such a huge honour to be a part of,” he told host Dr. Dean Allen and fans in the Zoom Room.
“At the time when I got picked, I was really excited to contribute to the success of the team. I was quite young; I was 22 and I wanted to make my mark in world rugby. I'm sorry to Phil Vickery, but I had no choice.”
The Springboks clinched the series in a classic clash at Loftus Versfeld the following week, Morné Steyn slotting a 52m penalty at the death to earn a dramatic 28-25 win before the tourists won the third and final Test 28-9 at Emirates Airline Park.
Smit, who captained the Springboks on a record 83 occasions and led them to World Cup glory in France in 2007, said the crunch clash in Pretoria was arguably the most physical of his 111-Test career.
Leonard shared Smit’s sentiments that the scrum and gainline battles will play a pivotal role in the outcome of the much-anticipated 2021 series.
“Anyone who’s played against South Africa, especially in South Africa, [knows that] there’s a physicality there that you have to match,” said Leonard, who featured in three Lions tours (in 1993, 1997 and 2001) and earned five caps.
“As a front row player, you’re looking at your opposite number and you want to play your game and do well. [To] Dominate in the modern game is tough because it’s more about inches, really.
“The British & Irish Lions will be under no illusions that whatever side takes to the field, it’ll have to be a side that, in their own heads, cannot take a backward step against the world champions because if you do, you’re not going to be in a good place. You’ve got to front up and give as good as you get.
“It starts and finishes up front, and you have to have dominance or even parity against South Africa from the first Test because South Africa’s only going to get stronger with the second and third Tests around the corner.
“The first Test in any series is important, but for a Lions series the first Test is key, so they’ll need to be able to stand up and not take a backward step in that Test,” added Leonard, England’s most-capped international (114) and only Test centurion.
Asked about the streamlined eight-match schedule, which will see the Lions take on the DHL Stormers, Cell C Sharks, Vodacom Bulls, South Africa ‘A’ and a South Africa ‘Invitational’ team in addition to the traditional three-Test series, Leonard said: “It’s a tough one...trying to fit into the [global] season. The last tour [to New Zealand in 2017] was 10 matches, so we’ve lost two.
“It will be a challenge...it’s an extra challenge on top of the already huge challenge of going to South Africa and playing some of their great teams at great stadiums and great support.
“It would be nice to have extra time, but we understand that it’s not always possible. You try to work with people in the UK and Ireland to make sure we have access [to players] and players get a chance to get together.
“You can’t go on tour for 10 or 12 weeks. You think of guys back in the day, they were gone for six months...it’s just not possible now. It is what it is - we just got to get on with it.
“Would I like a couple more games? Probably, but it’s a different challenge. When you think of the unbeaten side of 1974, what they did was absolutely amazing, but it’s still a challenge.
“If this Lions squad went unbeaten through this tour, it would still be a huge, huge achievement because of the hurdles that are there.”
By Quintin van Jaarsveld