The British & Irish Lions will face a major struggle to win their forthcoming Test series, according to one of the coaches who oversaw the Springboks’ victory on the Lions’ last tour to South Africa in 2009.
Gary Gold, now head coach of the USA Eagles who meet England this weekend, believes the hosts will prove “too strong” with the absence of visiting fans expected to be a key factor.
Gold was part of the Boks’ coaching setup 12 years ago when South Africa took the series 2-1 and he foresees another home triumph this time around.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Lions for a number of reasons,” said Gold, who has also worked in the Premiership at London Irish, Newcastle, Bath and Worcester.
“You mustn’t underestimate the magnitude of the absence of Lions supporters. I was privileged enough to be coaching in 2009 when the Lions came out and it’s still probably the highlight of my 20 years of professional coaching. I’ll never forget it.
“We walked out at King’s Park after we’d been dropped off by the bus and just saw this entire sea of red. It is a 16th man for the Lions. I just think that at home, with no spectators, reasonably limited time to prepare and a couple of other factors, that South African team is going to be too strong for the Lions.”
Gold, who will be bringing a largely inexperienced Eagles squad to Twickenham, also believes it would have been a wiser idea to stage the Lions tour in the northern hemisphere where some crowds might have been possible. “I am a traditionalist but I think they made a mistake by not holding the Lions tour in the UK where more people are vaccinated and the country is in a much better position to have crowds present. It’s better to have crowds than no crowd, wherever the game is. It’s a pity it’s worked out like that.”
The authorities in South Africa remain insistent that the tour this summer will proceed as planned, but it is already clear the third wave of Covid infections sweeping the country will ensure a very different touring experience.
“The Lions will always be competitive just because of how much it means to the players and the coaches but the whole dynamics of not having supporters there is very sad,” said Gold, who anticipates the Springboks to be hugely motivated having not played internationally since winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a walkover by any stretch of the imagination but I also don’t think the Springboks will be underdone. They’ve been playing in South Africa and overseas … they’ll be as prepared as the Lions and probably more so because the core of the team will come from their World Cup-winning squad. It’s going to be tough for the Lions but I think it’ll be an epic series.”