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Did South Africa lose despite playing better?

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Roar Rookie
25th July, 2021
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Unless South Africa can improve under the aerial assault of the Lions they may find themselves feeling they were better in more areas of the game than their opponents, yet somehow still lost the series.

There is a school of thought similar to this about the Germans in World War One.

This was a close game and South Africa may well feel that they got the worst of some important calls from the referees. Had one of the close calls gone their way, they would likely either have drawn, or won the game.

I thought Maro Itoje, who had a very impactful game (in contrast to his quiet one in the Rugby World Cup Final in 2019), was awarded a dubious penalty in the first half as South Africa were pressing the line.

A ruck had clearly formed before he reached over and grabbed the ball, I can’t see how the ball could be said to have been out of the ruck and he was supporting his weight by kneeling on a South Africa player – this would usually be a penalty and, given the situation of the game, it would have have led to a warning, or even a yellow card.

I also thought that the ‘no try’ call in the second half for South Africa where both pass and offside chaser were marginal was problematic, given that the on-field decision was try, meaning either had to be ‘clear and obvious’.

Each possible reason not to award was arguable, but that is not clear and obvious. I suspect South Africa were also unhappy about the refereeing of the scrum and it seems that the tackler releasing is now optional.

Having said that, close calls going against you and interpretations at scrum and ruck being problematic is really a part of the game and I like the attitude common among New Zealand rugby people, that if you are not good enough to remove the referee as an influence, then you haven’t been good enough.

I will also observe that it is easy to complain about refereeing and to cavil with decisions, but if you ever try to referee a game you will appreciate what a dynamic and difficult beast rugby is to adjudicate.


The point here is less that South Africa ‘woz robbed’ and more that they are not far off winning and, perhaps, that they failed to adapt to the refereeing and this, my friends, is a pretty important part of winning in rugby.

As with the game against South Africa ‘A’, the Lions were shaded in the collisions in the first half and the halftime scorer line fairly accurately reflected the Boks general dominance at set-piece and in the loose. Also as with the ‘A’ game, the Lions worked their way into the game and as the second half wore on, they were shading the collisions.

Again, as with the ‘A’ game, the Lions’ set-piece improved as the game went on and the Boks’ scrum struggled when the new front row came on, whereas in 2019 it went up a notch. Pre-test, some South African Casandra’s had fretted about the scrum maintaining its power as the game went on and they were proven to be right.

The collisions and the set piece really meant that the pressure on the Boks from the Lions’ aerial attack ratcheted up several notches. In the ‘A’ Game 1 felt that the Lions did not put up a lot of contestable kicks, which was unlike Warren Gatland led sides.

I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate, or not. The back three that Gatland selected for the Test seemed a running combination, more than a threat in the air, yet the selection of Dan Biggar and the new scrumhalf suggested a lot of high kicks would be coming.


I was confused, but in the end the Lions hoisted high almost from the outset and South Africa struggled to defuse the bombs on a consistent basis. This is a longstanding issue that has been noticed by better judges than me and if the Boks couldn’t deal with it in 2019, they may struggle to find the answer in the next week.

I would be looking hard at my stock of full backs and looking at the unpalatable prospect of dropping one of my wingers. I think the midgety Cheslin Kolbe is not the winger I’d lose – despite his vertical imbalance, he isn’t too bad under the bomb, and his attacking threat means I might look at the other wing position.

Gatland must be hoping that Biggar’s injury is not too serious. He is the flyhalf best able to put into effect the Gatland hoist and this tactic is one of inches. As Australia consistently show, a slightly off kick (and chase in the case of the Wallabies) can present a superb attacking opportunity to the opposition and it can be a really good way of piling the pressure back on yourself.

Dan Biggar lines up a pass

Dan Biggar (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

I have to say that I was unimpressed by Elliot Daly, who missed a tackle of the kind that true outside centres are expected to make and which opened the space for the superb PSDT to run for a thousand miles, before passing for the Boks’ first try.

It was not an easy tackle, but the thing about outside centre is that they rarely are – and you are those few extra metres away from your cover defence, so that your misses tend to really cost. He also failed to land a long range penalty. He is a fine player – anyone at this level is elite, but his form this year has not been good and I could not see what value he gave in this game.

The dynamics of this series will be interesting and may play to the advantage of the Lions. No crowds and all three games (if the pitch holds out) at sea level in Capetown should enable the Lions to feel pretty comfortable. Watching the pitch struggle to cope with scrums and even players trying to pull out significant changes in direction makes me wonder if the ground itself will also neuter the Boks running threats and preference for scrummaging dominance.

Cheslin Kolbe makes a break

South Africa. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)


I understand why there were a lot of complaints about the style of rugby played, but if one considers the two contestants and the occasion, it always seemed likely this would be more like the Last 100 Days of 1918 than Blitzkrieg, or Austerlitz.

The pitch may ensure this remains the pattern. I don’t mind this type of rugby, as part of a varied diet and it also makes one hungrier for the type of rugby one tends to see when New Zealand and Australia play, even if it is anyone’s guess whether a combative, but extremely rough edged Australian side can provide a consistent challenge for a New Zealand side not without its own transitional issues.

It is also a good reminder that past successful Australian sides could muck down and grind it out with the best, as they did in the duck pond in Capetown in 1992, for example. I think more respect could be paid to attritional rugby.

As a postscript, I feel a need to praise the enduring hard grind that Courtney Lawes puts in. It is no disservice to Itoje to say that he often works in synergy with Lawes. Courtney Lawes is my preferred type of 6 – he is really a lock with speed and the smarts to read the game.

He reminds of what Mike Brewer of New Zealand might have been if injuries had not so cruelly robbed him of what should have been a stellar career.

It isn’t the only model of a blindside flanker, but it is a good one. I would also like to speak in defence of Kwagga Smith, who like Neil Back or Michael Hooper or even Chris Roche (for the long of tooth among us) can attract a lot of hate, some of it justified, some of it not. He wasn’t the reason for South Africa’s travails – he may have been a symptom.