By News Team
30th July 2021
Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson has told us that the Lions players have a chance to write their names into rugby folklore against South Africa this weekend, but warned they must not get carried away by the significance of the occasion and should focus on the job at hand.
The Lions head into their second Test against South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday having won last weekend’s opener and with the chance of securing a first series triumph over the nation for 24 years with another victory.
And Dawson, who helped the Lions to that famous series win against South Africa in 1997, says the 2021 crop can go where very few rugby players have ever gone before.
“A first series win in South Africa in 24 years would be huge, these opportunities just don’t come along very often,” Dawson said. “A lot of these players will have experienced the drawn New Zealand Lions tour in 2017 and being a whisker away from picking up a series win there. You can’t help but think they will have told themselves they will never miss an opportunity like that again.
“You can go down in history, you can talk about it forever more, you can be part of a very elite group of Lions players that have won a Test series. 24 years…and it was another 23 years since the last South Africa series win before we won in 1997! They really do not come around very often and if you’re looking back on your career, in the years to come, these are the moments that separate you from other players.”
But while the Lions squad will be aware of the significance of Saturday’s match, Dawson says the players must not focus too much on what a victory over South Africa this weekend would mean.
“As a player you are always very conscious of the tradition and history of the Lions, 99.9% of rugby players will never have that opportunity to be a part of rugby history and folklore like that,” Dawson said. “You’ve got to embrace it, you’ve got to enjoy it, but make sure it doesn’t cloud your thinking or judgement, or your perspective of the game. It is tricky sometimes not to get whisked away by the romance of the Lions and what is eventually ahead of you.”
Dawson added: “In the week leading up to it, as a player you’re going to think about the significance of the occasion and some players might use it for motivation. But there is a danger you get caught up in the outcome rather than the process. And these players have been through such adversity, they are so well trained mentally as well as physically, that they won’t fall into the trap of getting lulled into what it means to win the game.
“This is simply just about winning the game and what can the player do to enhance his and the team’s performance so that they do win the game. The tag of being ‘historic’ and ‘memorable’ is something to look back on, but I would doubt any of the players are sitting there in their rooms this week thinking ‘this is something to tell my grandkids’ – as it means nothing unless they go out and do it.”
Despite trailing 12-3 at the break last week, the Lions came back to win 22-17 with an impressive second-half performance. Dawson is expecting a stronger South Africa display on Saturday but believes the Lions have what it takes to claim another victory and seal the series.
“I’m expecting a fitter and resurgent South Africa side, the South Africans won’t be fading away like they did last weekend,” Dawson said. “It will have done them the world of good to get that match fitness in and they had the opportunities. Two disallowed tries, other opportunities… Their second half discipline was shocking and that’s something they can change and make good in the week pretty easily. I would be amazed if South Africa are giving away cheap penalties like they did in that second half, and therefore points and territory to the Lions.
“That second half, which was amazing for the Lions, South Africa know if they play like that they’re done and dusted. I can’t see them being that ill-disciplined. None of the bounces of the ball went their way and you’d think at some stage in the series they’re going to get the bounce of the ball, so I’d be expecting them to come bouncing back pretty quickly.
“I would want the Lions to win on Saturday rather than take it to a third Test as I think the South Africans are going to get better week to week. But I think the Lions will have enough in their locker. I know South Africa have made changes, but I think the Lions will do it at the weekend. They’ll learn from their mistakes in the first half last week, they’ll keep their discipline. They’ll be aware of the South Africa counter-attack and, more importantly, the Lions have got that second half from last week to show them that’s the type of rugby that’s going to be effective at this level. They’ve picked the right squad and I do think the Lions can win by six or seven points on Saturday.”
Dawson was impressed by the performances of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes last week and is expecting the Lions duo to turn in similar displays this weekend.
“Itoje and Lawes, as they stepped up last weekend, they’ll want to back it up,” Dawson said. “But I don’t believe the Lions can win the game with just a couple of forwards stepping up, it needs to be four or five. Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership is world class, you know what you’re going to get out of him week to week. He doesn’t have bad games. The back row played well last week but the likes of Tom Curry and Jack Conan will be looking at Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje thinking that’s the type of intensity we need. Those two will probably really be quite inspirational for the rest of the pack and I’m expecting two or three other individuals in that pack to step up.”
Having been there and done it with the Lions in South Africa, Dawson also had some advice for the current squad ahead of Saturday’s game.
He said: “My advice to the Lions would be, you are going to play against a possessed side like you’ve never come across before. You’re going to have to take yourself physically and mentally to a new place, you’re going to have to challenge yourself. That’s the tough part, that’s going to separate you from the opposition. Can you mentally take yourself to a place where you have crystal-clear thinking in the cauldron and pressure cooker of elite Test match rugby? As that’s where it will be won. It’s going to be won in the top two inches, not in the belly or the set-piece. It’s going to be the head that wins it at the weekend.”