Tommy Bowe is using his experiences of touring South Africa to warn The British & Irish Lions they face a stern test in the Rainbow Nation – both on and off the pitch.
The two-time Lions tourist has vivid memories of his playing days against the Springboks, starting in all three Tests on the 2009 Tour when Sir Ian McGeechan’s men succumbed to a 2-1 series defeat.
The former Ireland winger was also a central part of the Lions’ series victory in Australia in 2013 but it’s that visit to South Africa that lives long in the memory, as the tourists lost a thrilling second Test 28-25 in the heat of the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
Bowe will always recall that day in Pretoria and says while the South African population are among the most welcoming hosts in world rugby, Warren Gatland’s side will need all their mental resolve to deal with the pressures of game day.
“It will be incredibly difficult for the Lions,” the 36-year-old said.
“The South African crowd are so hostile and passionate about their team, but also so welcoming – I think they really appreciate the Lions and their support coming into the country.
“There’s something special about the Lions with the four countries coming together, with the colour and the excitement of the Lions supporters combined with the passion and pride, particularly towards the Lions, of the Springbok fans.
“I think that’s the perfect combination and it’s an incredible, and very special, tour and place to play – every time the Lions tour in South Africa it’s always been incredible, and this one will be no different.
“My memories of that 2009 Tour are just that second Test – I will never forget the bus going to the stadium in Pretoria.
“I’ve never seen animosity at a crowd like I saw that day going into the stadium in Pretoria – people were shaking the bus and shouting all sorts!
“The reverberation of the crowd in the changing room of the stadiums was just outrageous – you could just feel the supporters outside baying for your blood.”
A last-gasp Morné Steyn penalty in the capital dashed the Lions’ hopes of levelling the series that year, before McGeechan’s men bounced back to triumph 28-9 in Johannesburg and restore pride in a 2-1 series defeat.
But it was in Australia four years later where Bowe became a Lions immortal, missing the first Test through injury but recovering in time for the second and third as the Lions won 41-16 in Sydney to end their 16-year wait for a Tour victory.
Bowe is well-acquainted with what makes effective Tour opponents, having encountered the likes of John Smit, Bryan Habana, Michael Hooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper on those visits to South Africa and Australia.
The former back can’t wait for the series and has picked out two players – who both featured as South Africa toppled England 32-12 in the World Cup Final – in Rassie Erasmus’ side with the ability to thwart the Lions’ advances.
“The Lions are going to be up against the world champions, and South Africa showed that they’re ruthless, physical and a match for anyone,” he added.
“The way they played against England in the World Cup Final, they just showed how difficult they are to play against.
“I think Pieter-Steph du Toit is just an absolute machine, and of course they’ve also got Cheslin Kolbe, who’s at the opposite end of the spectrum size-wise but is just so gifted.
“He’s somebody who, the minute he gets the ball in his hands, can get the whole crowd on their feet to see what he can do.
“They have no shortage of talent in their team, so it’s going to be an incredible series.”