So, the Lions are back home after an underwhelming and flat series defeat in South Africa. On the bare facts of it, it wasn’t a disgrace by any means. In a Lions’ context, a 2-1 reverse is far from a disaster. However, the nature of the performances bristled.
It was a hard watch. After hammering poor provincial opposition, the Lions failed to sparkle in the four matches that mattered: South Africa ‘A’ and the three Tests. Little was created of note and the Springboks’ defence was never tested in a meaningful sense. A couple of decent maul tries scored but that’s it. Not much else.
There are extenuating circumstances, of course. South Africa was ravaged by Covid long before BIL and the boys came to town and the country’s vaccination programme lags behind our own. There are real questions over whether the tour should have gone ahead at all. There were viable alternatives. But that’s another matter.
It proceeded as planned but, alas, the rugby didn’t excite. The offering on the pitch was not just sterile but actually quite tedious. Keith Wood is right in his blunt assessment. We can’t blame the Springboks. SA have played the exact same way for well over a century. The Lions were never going to overcome rugby’s most brutal side in an arm wrestle and standing toe-to-toe.
The Lions needed to invent. And they didn’t. Not even a little bit. It was rugby by numbers. And gee, it was flat. It took about ten minutes of the recent Bledisloe Cup game to remind us that it doesn’t have to be this way. There were anomalies in selection, too.
Duhan van der Merwe is a decent, hard working player but out of place in a Lions Test team. And the exclusion of Owen Farrell makes little sense. On the biggest of stages, Test match animals are needed and Farrell fits the fill: a big game player and a leader. Even marginally out of sorts, he offers something tangible to any squad he’s in.
Selection aside, the biggest impediment to success was the style. Too often the Lions kicked down the hosts’ throats and engaged in the sort of hoof-fest the Boks lap up. And they went there repeatedly, even when palpably not working. Talk about playing into the other side’s strengths. The Lions only opened up with Finn Russell’s premature introduction in the third Test following Dan Biggar’s injury. But it was too little, too late. The opportunity was lost.
In the end, the mystery is how close the Lions came to pulling it off. Because this wasn’t a vintage crop and the tourists were too far off the pace to seriously threaten the world champions. Yes, they had their moments and just completing the tour in such tough circumstances was impressive, but the better side won. No doubt.
Actually, it wasn’t a vintage tour. If looking for keenly fought competition and tactical innovation this summer, Love Island delivered more consistently. At least, the action heated up at times!
P.S. The other big sporting event of summer 2021 was the Euros. And it nearly came home, against all the odds. In the end, England fell a little short but played well and are rightly proud of their efforts. And their likeable, humble manager, Gareth Southgate, played a blinder too.
What struck me most following England’s penalty loss to Italy was how quickly fans and commentators turned against the England coach. It was not just quick but instant. A manager and team hailed as heroes moments before condemned by a merciless and unforgiving online jury. Sport is a fickle place sometimes.