Now we know who’s got a seat on the plane when the British and Irish Lions 2021 head out to South Africa for the start of the tour in July we can turn our attention to how we think the lads will get on. And boy are we excited for this one.
There are always plenty of factors that can affect a squad’s performance on a tour. Training, nutrition, team bonding and camaraderie, and injuries can always play their part. And this time out we’re dealing with the added pressure of the lack of Lions support out in South Africa. Some might say it’s a tall order against the world champions, but it’s this kind of pressure that we know our Lions will thrive on.
2021 British & Irish Lions tour matches and venues
The first thing to note is that the 2021 Lions Tour of South Africa involves eight matches in five weeks. This is two fewer matches than the 2017 tour of New Zealand – and with a 37 man squad this should help Warren Gatland when it comes to managing fitness levels and conditioning for the culmination of the tour with the three test matches against the Springboks.
The hosts aren’t necessarily playing nice either. Both the altitude and weather in South Africa can have a big effect on fitness levels when it really counts – and the venue selection plays a massive part in this.
The big 3 test matches
Let’s start with the big ones. The three test matches at the end of the tour against the world champions. Two of the tests, the crucial first and third are both held in Johannesburg – a city that is 1,753 metres above sea level. The altitude in Joburg can be a killer. Could this be a deliberate ploy by South Africa to have two of the three tests played at altitude? When the players pull on their 2021 British & Irish Lions shirts, they’ll have to be prepared.
Location: FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Also called Soccer City, FNB Stadium is located in Nasrec, south of Johannesburg. It was built originally between 1986 and 1989 but received a major upgrade which was finished in 2009 in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It hosted the World Cup final and the opening match as well as four other group matches, one Round of 16 and a Quarter Final. With a capacity of around 95,000 it is an imposing venue built in the shape of an African pot.
The Lions and Springboks have no real history here, but it will still be a tough place to play.
Biggest obstacle: The Springboks of course. And the altitude.
Location: Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Cape Town Stadium is of course located in Cape Town. The exact location is between Green Hill and the Atlantic Ocean – in fact the views of the stadium with the ocean behind are pretty spectacular. With a capacity of 55,000 it was purpose-built for the 2010 Football World Cup, with construction beginning in 2007 and completed at the end of 2009. This means that there’s no history between the two sides on this ground either.
Biggest obstacle: The outcome of the first test will of course play a huge part in the Lions approach to this test. And with temperatures in July capable of hitting 20°C, the weather will likely have an effect too.
Location: Emirates Airline Park
Known to you and me (as well as rugby fans the world over) as Ellis Park, this is a venue steeped in Springbok history. Based in the Doornfontein area of the city, it was first opened in 1928, renovated in 2009 and holds over 60,000 people.
Whilst the Lions won’t have to cope with 60,000 delirious Springboks supporters, they will face the weight of history in a stadium regarded as the fortress of South African rugby. It could be everything to play for come the final test or it could be all over. Either way, the Boks will be supremely confident running out into a stadium where they famously won the 1995 World Cup. But that doesn’t mean the Lions will be running scared having won here in the third test in 2009. There might have been nothing to play for in that encounter, but as the first win on the Ellis Park turf for the Lions since 1955 and the last time the two sides met in South Africa it’ll do a little for the confidence.
Biggest obstacle: The weight of South African rugby history and the altitude.
Before facing the Springboks
The Lions will be on South African soil for five matches before they face off against the Springboks, with an introduction to the Cape Town Stadium and a chance to acclimatise to the higher temperatures on 3rd July for the first match of the tour against the Stormers.
After this they spend more time at sea level with a match in Port Elizabeth at the Nelson Mandela Stadium against a South African Invitational side on July 7th. This is followed three days later by an encounter on the coast again against the Sharks at Durban’s Jonsson Kings Park.
Next up is Mbombela to play South Africa A on July 14th. The first real taste of South Africa’s famous altitude comes in the final match before the tests kick off with an encounter at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium on July 17th against the Bulls. Pretoria is 1,339m above sea level, whilst the stadium itself is packed with rugby history down the years – the Lions will want to banish memories of that final kick in the second test in 2009. Could this be a Springbok tactic to make the Lions remember that match right before the tests kick off? If it is, it could go either way.
There’s no doubt about it – the Lions will be up against it during the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour. They’ll have to contend with the weather, the history, the altitude and the little matter of a Springboks team buoyed by their recent World Cup triumph. But this is what being a Lion is all about. We really can’t wait for this one.