If the Lions want to bounce back and win what has become a puffy test series, they’ll have to go broke
It was a bad night for the Lions and a bad night for the sport. After a test of patience that was all murmurs and no suspense, this hateful series is poised for a tense climax.
Where to start? Well, the Lions tried to beat the Springboks at their own game and played into the hands of the world champions. The plan failed, spectacularly. An urgent reconsideration is needed, otherwise this will not end well for the tourists.
While the British and Irish players are getting a few days off, Warren Gatland and his assistants should be planning a review of their squad and tactics. The head coach has made some brave selection decisions in the past, most notably dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test against Australia in 2013, but this week he will have to be braver than ever before.
The Lions’ hopes of sealing a famous Test series triumph were crushed by an air raid
The momentum is now with the Springboks, requiring the Lions to have a new lineup and a new no-fear mentality. They have to go bankrupt. They cannot die wondering. Not performing on Saturday amounted to betrayal of so much talent and that should not happen again.
If they’re going to fail here, as has happened so many times in the past, at least miss a few shots. The Lions can’t just set up their booth to “stay in the fray” like they did last time. That cannot be the extent of their ambition. It would be a real shame if they went home regretting losing a series because they didn’t make good use of all the weapons they had at their disposal.
A major operation is in order, primarily in the area of personnel. If Wyn Jones is available, he should start with loosehead prop, being a solid scrummager who can also provide a good breakdown presence. On the latter basis, Tadhg Beirne should be considered on the blindside and Jamie George would add tremendous punching power and pedigree to hooker.
The Lions had come second against a fearsome South Africa in a tricky second Test
The last three calamities cannot be overlooked. Liam Williams should start at fullback, as the best aerial bomber and counter attacker, while Josh Adams deserves to show he can turn his early tour goalscoring streak into a test where the Lions are clamoring for a lead. He should have been picked above Duhan van der Merwe in the first place.
Crucially, the Lions are clamoring for an effective, bold creative hub to negate the Boks’ lightning defenses and create try-scoring opportunities. As hard as it would be to demote Dan Biggar for following strict orders, Gatland would have to gamble with Finn Russell, in alliance with his Scottish halfback partner Ali Price. The visitors have to generate pace and threaten widely. These are the men to make it happen. It can go wrong, there are no guarantees, but it can be a masterstroke.
It is hard to imagine that Gregor Townsend, Gatland’s senior assistant, can be satisfied with the game plan in the second Test. As an attack coach, he must certainly be eager to see the team’s attack, which they didn’t. Instead, it was a matter of kicking and scrambling, kicking and hoping, repeating to fade. It was sad and uncomfortable to watch and it must have been even sadder and uncomfortable to participate. The Lions have wizards and finishers gathering dust here.
South African winger Cheslin Kolbe was lucky enough to escape a red for knocking out Conor Murray (top)
But of course they need a good platform and that is why the pack cannot remain untouched. They held their ground until halftime and then were overwhelmed as the second half progressed.
The lineout turned into a mess, the scrum was besieged, the Boks dominated the bad luck and they also started wreaking havoc with their driving maul. It was a defeat towards the end, in all respects. Gatland can’t just hope the hosts will be emotionally drained. They gain in hardness and cohesion.
For the bigger picture – for the health of the sport – the events in the empty Cape Town Stadium were deeply concerning. Is this what Test rugby has become? Is this the inevitable result of skyrocketing effort and tension? It was an absolutely horrible, swollen rut. After a club season of so much tactical positivity, this was a miserable come-down.
South African captain Siya Kolisi (second from left) did well for a try from Robbie Henshaw. to prevent
The inconvenient truth is that this series coincided with the Olympic Sevens in Tokyo, which captivated viewers, and the contrast is brutal. Those who want to defend the primacy of the 15-versus game to the hilt should know that those who dip a toe in this water will decide they don’t want to take the plunge. Coaches who hand out the mantra win at any cost can continue with it until everyone has left and the lights are out behind them.
Whatever the opposite of an ad, this was it. All the bar rugby die-hards wouldn’t open the curtains to watch that first half of the marathon if it was played in their yard. A showcase of the game and a much-loved highlight in the oval ball calendar scares people off rather than draws them in. It was a bad mood.
At each step, the second Test was a trial of TMO; a result of Rassie Erasmus’s scandalous comments on social media last week. World Rugby’s lack of action so far is a pathetic indictment of weak governance. The man accused officials of lack of integrity, set fire to the game’s sacred core values, but was free to continue watering and giving coaching tips on the pitch. It was a farcical spectacle.
The Lions came in three at halftime after Dan Biggar (third from right) made it 9-6 with this kick
The Lions have every right to feel offended by the presence of the South African rugby director. They may also feel sad that Cheslin Kolbe escaped a red card and Faf de Klerk even a yellow card. But they will know deep down, in the midst of any simmering injustice, that they were beaten not by the umpire, his assistants or the TMO, but by the better team. Well beaten.
The Boks can do the same again, with more playing time increasing their momentum, and they will win the series. If it’s another arm wrestling and aerial duel in five days, there will only be one winner and it won’t be the Lions.
So Gatland must embrace the need for change. He must be brave, as he has been before. If the Lions go bankrupt, it might not work, but it’s their best shot at saving themselves – and perhaps saving the sport from even more reputational damage from which it’s hard to recover.
Springbok flight half Pollard then had a fine chip float over the top for wing Makazole Mapimpi
Lukhanyo Am extended lead with this try – ex-ref Nigel Owens said he was out of control
Pollard then kicked three late penalties to rub salt into Lions wounds as the match ended 27-9