Well, I did say there’d be kicking…
Let’s be honest, the second Lions Test against South Africa was not what one could call a great advertisement for the game. Even if audiences weren’t expecting the red-hot thrill of this year’s Gallagher Premiership final between Exeter and Quins, a game which was billed as being a prime instalment of one of rugby’s great exhibitions failed to truly deliver.
Hyped to the nines, a match that should’ve been over in 80 minutes felt as though it had lasted around three hours, especially given the endless stoppages, reviews and controversies which suffocated the evening’s proceedings.
Nevertheless, take nothing away from a Springboks side which came back with a vengeance like a wounded beast stampeding with a hurricane at its back. The Lions, regardless of whether or not they were expecting a response, simply couldn’t match South Africa’s dominance in the air or in the forwards and will have been praying for the final whistle by around 60 minutes.
What, then, can we learn from Round Two of this titanic matchup, and where do the Lions go from here as they head into the final week seeking to pull a petrified rabbit from a very deep and rather battered hat?
Shaking It Up
The panic button might just have been pushed. Any test side which goes down 27-9 must make changes, and Warren Gatland has made six switches to his starting XV, including Liam Williams, Bundee Aki and Josh Adams, as well as adding a host of new faces to his bench, such as Exeter’s Sam Simmonds and Scottish fly-half Finn Russell.
Whatever happens next week, the Lions will know that they have to find out a way of taking back control of the set-piece, in particular, the lineout and the scrum. The introduction of Lood de Jager for Jasper Wiese completely disrupted the visitors’ efficiency from throws, with Franco Mostert a particular menace which the Lions simply couldn’t deal with.
Most importantly, however, the Lions need players who can play. They need creativity, especially seeing as evidence suggests that they are incapable of simply going through their gargantuan opponents. If they want to win, they need to find a way of disrupting that incredible defensive unit. Gatland could’ve opted for a second distributor at 12, i.e. Owen Farrell, but his squad announcement saw Bundee Aki picked to slot in at inside centre, likely to break lines and create holes that might disrupt the Boks’ defensive line.
Biggar, meanwhile, might be a superb kicking 10 who justified his inclusion during his first test performance, but do Gatland and Townsend need to consider all or nothing flair to add a disruptive spark to proceedings, especially when Biggar even ended up operating as a kick chaser as much as a ball-in-hand distributor? Finn Russell, back on the bench, has creativity seeping from his pores. The most passes the Lions managed to string together on Saturday was a paltry five. If things repeat themselves next time out, expect the Scottish 10 to make an appearance.
Stuart Hogg, meanwhile, has been cut from the 23 altogether after being stifled creatively by the Boks’ treacle-like defence and looking shaky under the high ball; could Liam Williams, set to start at 15, be the man to shore things up at the back?
The big shock from Gatland’s shake-up is perhaps the continued inclusion of Duhan van der Merwe, selected to compete under the high ball yet completely useless when it came to fielding the Boks’ bombardment or chasing their own teammate Murray’s probing shells. If VDM can’t cash in on his main asset, why has Anthony Watson, whose inconsistencies in the air masked a far more talented runner with the ball, been dropped for the ever-reliable Josh Adams? If van der Merwe has a poor game, expect Gatland to take a proportion of the flak.
Establishing a Style of Play
The ever-cheerful Ronan O’Gara summarised the Lions second test performance pretty aptly in the aftermath of the wreckage when he said that they didn’t seem to have ‘an established style of play’, contrasting with a side who knew exactly how they themselves wanted to perform.
The Boks might kick constantly as part of their infamous ‘Plan A’ but they do have strengths all over the pitch from which they can draw; a dominant pack and lineout, pacey wingers, a creative nine, destructive centres, their riches are boundless. South Africa know one another so well and know their game plan so intimately that is now like a jazz musician improvising on a set of scales, falling back into familiar patterns as a base and then riffing and ad-libbing when the game demands it.
Contrast this with the Lions, who looked like a once-confident actor going to pot on stage as he realises there are pages of the script he didn’t know were his to memorise. Viewing the second test, I was reminded of watching my beloved England in 2018 at the Six Nations, when the apparent favourites played abysmally and ended up finishing fifth.
During pretty much every match I found myself asking the same question: ‘What on Earth are they even trying to do?’. There seemed to be no game plan, no structure or strategy, no purpose and no clear direction.
For all the talk of a great Boks defensive and needing to cope with the high-ball game, what were the Lions actually attempting to achieve in attack? Yes, South Africa defend superbly, but when some of the Northern Hemisphere’s finest backs can’t execute a single set play, something has gone seriously wrong. The Lions made 85 carries with an average meterage gain of 1.24, the lowest by a tier-one team since Opta’s records began.
Clearly, trying to barge down the front door isn’t going to work any time soon, but a probing kicking game is only effective if a) the execution is sound and b) there are pacey, creative players ready to exploit the ensuing disruption to the opponent’s structure.
That said, Bundee Aki’s inclusion would imply that Gatland wasn’t entirely happy with the physicality that his team exhibited last Saturday, and with the mighty Manu Tuilagi unavailable to tour, Aki will be the Lions’ designated demolition man through the middle. Where the creativity comes from, however, remains a bit of a mystery…
Fire with Fire?
Sport isn’t just about matching your opponent – it’s about playing your game better than they play theirs. We often talk about justifying selections in response to the opposition being faced, often in quite basic terms; the Boks have a large pack, we need a large pack. The Boks play physically, we need to play physically. The Boks have pacey wingers, we need pacey wingers.
This simply doesn’t make sense. While certain elements of an opponent’s game need to be matched in order that they don’t completely walk over you when their 20 stone centre flattens his 12 stone counterpart, sport is about manoeuvring yourself so that a game is created which plays to your strengths whilst negating those of your opponents. No one in their right mind faced off against prime Barcelona in 2011 and said ‘right, we need to match these guys by playing tiki-taka, possession-based football’, because you’re coming up against the masters themselves. Far better to find a style which you know your opponents don’t want to play.
There was a famous Wimbledon final in 1975 wherein underdog Arthur Ashe came up against infamously powerful counter-hitter Jimmy Connors. Instead of attempting to outgun or feed the Connors machine, underdog Ashe took the pace off the game, slicing and paddling his way to victory as Connors belted the ball out with startling regularity.
The Lions are now Arthur Ashe, the ‘underpowered’ underdogs who must find an unconventional way of winning outside of pure strength and power. Gatland, never the fool, knows this all too well, and his great challenge will be to do the impossible; implement a game plan for which the most complete team in world rugby is simply not prepared.
The Future of Refereeing?
Any rugby fan who hasn’t spent the last few weeks taking to the skies with Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson will probably be aware that Springboks ‘director of rugby Rassie Erasmus released an hour-long video last week detailing why he felt the referees, particularly the TMOs, had let the hosts down during the series’ first test in Cape Town.
It’s no surprise then that this week’s game saw near-constant consultation of the TMO for practically every decision possible, with the tone set early as South Africa gave away a penalty within the opening minutes for a tackle in the air which was borderline at best.
Ben O’Keeffe, who I personally feel did an admirable job of controlling a fiery contest with the half the rugby collective breathing down his metaphorical neck, was forced to lay down an aggressively stringent set of markers pretty much from the start of the game, desperately trying to referee to the letter of the law so that no room for interpretation, and therefore criticism, could enter the debate.
For all of O’Keeffe’s excellence, there will be some corners who feel that the ref was forced to play it safe on some of the game’s bigger calls, including a seemingly deliberate kick by Van der Merwe on Cheslin Kolbe and a potentially career-ending contest in the air from Kolbe which left Lions 9 Conor Murray needing pitch-side attention.
Did O’Keeffe feel that this wasn’t the time to be throwing red cards around, and will he exercise similar restraint for the decider? O’Keeffe desperately sought a moderate middle way; sternly punish the marginal infringements with penalties, but don’t seek out the nuclear option of red cards unless it’s absolutely necessary.
It will be fascinating to see how next week’s game is handled from an adjudicatory standpoint; biases and placatory notions aside, especially as the second test has drawn criticism from many who feel that the referees are now terrified to make big decisions for fear of an Erasmus-style backlash, pouring over TMO footage for eternities in an attempt to establish the ‘truth’. Whatever happens in the third Lions test could set a precedent for how referees and officials choose to preside over big games for a long time to come…
An Advert for the Game?
Much of the backlash from the second test may have been aimed at the dismal performance of the Lions, but even more, venom has been directed at the nature of the game itself. Jubilant Boks fans aside, there have been very, very few pundits or fans who have commented favourably on the match as a spectacle in its own right. Constant interruptions, long deliberations over penalty and TMO decisions, interminable levels of box kicking, no attacking threat from the visitors, frequent mistakes, dropped catches and missed opportunities; this was not the advert for the game many hoped that it would be.
This is a worry. The Lions tour theoretically brings together the best players from across the four home nations to do battle against the game’s current behemoths, be they Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Think back to the great legacy of incredible Lions moments; O’Driscoll’s incredible scything run against Australia in 2001, Jason Robinson’s glorious try in the same series, Shane Williams dotting down against the Boks in ’09, Liam Williams setting up arguably the greatest Lions effort of all time for eventual scorer Sean O’Brien in 2017 against the All Blacks. These are the incidents that makes the tour so special, so revered and so hotly anticipated.
For what, then, will we remember this year’s series? Luke Cowan-Dickie scrappily mauling over for the visitors’ only try of the entire campaign? Robbie Henshaw’s disallowed score? Or, most likely, the toxic bickering and media circus caused predominantly by Erasmus’ hour-long tirade against the match officials?
Whatever happens in the third test, both sides have to try to create a match worth watching. They have to create their own legacy.