The first Test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions highlighted the strength of the Springbok game plan as well as the vulnerability of its key players. What’s more, the leadership on the field and in the coaching box was found wanting at crucial junctures of the second half.

It’s worth pointing out that the Boks were physically and tactically dominant in the first half and that they won the period 12-3. The Lions emerged 19-5 winners of the second stanza, however, and that speaks to the strength of the tourists’ leadership and ultimately their ability to adapt as a Test moves toward the dying stages.

It’s not that the Boks don’t possess these mental strengths. Over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, they were put under pressure by opposition teams and asked to fight their way back from seemingly hopeless situations.

They bounced back after conceding a big lead in the opening Test of the series against England in June 2018. They started poorly the following week against Eddie Jones’ charges, yet still managed to complete a comeback win as well as a series victory.

Later that year, the Boks hung on for a monumental win against the All Blacks in New Zealand. The physical and mental performance in the latter stages of that epic in Wellington put the rugby world on notice. Thirteen months later, the Boks won the World Cup.

South Africa have retained most of the coaches and players from that successful campaign. Why then are they failing to live up to their own physical and mental standards – and why are they staring down the barrel of a series defeat to the Lions?

The match at Cape Town Stadium this past Saturday marked the Boks’ second Test since the World Cup final on 2 November 2019. The pandemic – and particularly the situation in South Africa – has denied them a chance to grow since the global tournament in Japan.

And yet, as Nienaber himself has declared on more than one occasion, this cannot be used as an excuse for a substandard performance. South Africa gets one opportunity every 12 years to play the Lions. Despite many Covid-related setbacks in the lead-up to the series, they have to find a way to make this opportunity count.

The Boks ran out of steam in the latter stages of the first Test. While they were all-powerful at the collisions in the first half, their carries and tackles lacked punch in the second. While they soared to beat the Lions in the air initially, they struggled to get off the ground towards the death.

Going forward, Nienaber should take a page out of Gatland’s book and consider how he intends to finish a game. Who might be on the field in the latter stages of the second Test?

The bench will be a big talking point over the coming days, and it won’t come as a surprise if scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and veteran flyhalf Morné Steyn are named in a revamped ‘Bomb Squad’. The inclusion of a double World Cup winner in Frans Steyn wouldn’t hurt. The kicking attributes and ultimately the game management qualities of these players should enhance South Africa’s challenge in the second half.

Gatland predicted that the bench would influence the outcome of these matches, and his prediction certainly came to pass in the first Test. The Lions replacements fired, whereas the Bok reserves failed to provide the energy or the inspiration to change the course of the contest.

Alun Wyn Jones was massive for the Lions at a time when the chips were down. He enjoyed plenty of support in the second half, though, with many senior players standing tall. Again, Gatland must get credit for showing faith in veterans like Conor Murray and Owen Farrell – regular starters for Ireland and England who have been terrifically repurposed as Lions finishers.

Bok captain Siya Kolisi did not enjoy the same support. After the World Cup final, Kolisi credited his leadership group and the likes of Duane Vermeulen and Handré Pollard in particular. Vermeulen, who is still recovering from an ankle injury, was missed by the Boks this past Saturday. There were some question marks over Pollard’s fitness given his recent isolation due to Covid-19, and the flyhalf’s performance certainly dipped after half-time. Unfortunately for South Africa, Pollard’s replacement Elton Jantjies offered very little in terms of leadership or X-factor when he entered the contest.

Nienaber is right to a point when he says that the situation is salvageable. The Boks have the set-piece and the kicking plan to hurt the Lions. Whether they have a 23-man squad with the collective ability to hurt the Lions for 80 minutes still remains to be seen.

Nienaber has to get his selections right ahead of what could be the decisive Test of the series. From there, the players need to show the same physical and mental tenacity that earned them the World Cup.