Du Toit, Erasmus hail Lions ahead of South African tour kick-off

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British and Irish Lions fly-half Dan Biggar catches the ball during a warm-up victory over Japan in Edinburgh last weekend.
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World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus have hailed the British and Irish Lions, who kick off an eight-match tour of South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday.

"You can play in a World Cup every four years, but the Lions' tours to South Africa are 12 years apart and that is what makes them so special," said Springboks flanker Du Toit.

"For the vast majority of South African rugby players there is only one opportunity to beat the Lions and this places huge pressure on us, especially in the Test series."

Erasmus, who temporarily switched from national director of rugby to head coach to guide South Africa to an unexpected third World Cup title in Japan two years ago, is equally in awe of the tourists.

"Apart from some incredible Tests between the Springboks and the Lions over the past 130 years, there have also been some amazing matches between our provincial teams and the tourists.

"For South African rugby players who miss out on the World Cup, facing the Lions is the highlight of their career."

Admiration of the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh stars who come together every four years to tour either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, extends to best-selling local rugby author Craig Ray.

"The rarity of Lions tours and the outrageous concept of putting players from four countries together and asking them to topple a unified team in a hostile environment is a monumental challenge.

"Lions players are picked as much for their personality traits as their rugby brilliance. On a tour like this, a few disruptive influences can contaminate the entire party."

- Key factor -

While the selection of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray as replacement captain for injured Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones puzzled some pundits, his ability to create and maintain collective spirit was a key factor.

Murray also worked with Erasmus and new Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber at Munster, giving him an insight into the thinking of the South Africans.

But the leader of the 37-strong pack of Lions says the tourists must be prepared for surprises in the five tour matches and the three-Test series, which begins on July 24 in Cape Town.

"You have got to be quite adaptable," Murray said during his first press conference after the team arrived this week. "Insight is good, but Rassie and Jacques could come up with something completely different."

The Lions will leave bio bubbles to face the four major South African franchises -- the Lions, Sharks, Bulls and Stormers -- and a South Africa A selection before the Tests.

Franchise players in the 45-man Springbok squad are unlikely to be released to face the Lions, which would deprive the Sharks of nine stars, the Stormers of eight, the Bulls of four and the Lions of one.

First up for the Lions will be namesakes the Lions, who have the poorest track record of the 'big four' since rugby resumed last September after a seven-month coronavirus-induced shutdown.

Covid-19 continues to cast a dark shadow over the country with the Lions based in the Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria and is the epicentre of a deadly third wave.

South Africa is the African country most affected by the disease with 1,995,556 official cases and 61,029 deaths entering Friday.

dl/cdw

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