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Who will brag for the next 12 years? The villainous Boks or the pure Lions?

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Expert
5th August, 2021
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The pantomime is set.

On the world stage, brutally effective South Africa once again assumes the role of villain: bullying, snarling, isolated and unaware of social niceties. The British and Irish Lions play the victim: using the right channels, the channels they built and horrified by colonials daring to expose the dross and grime in those channels.

With the series tied up, the stage is set for career-defining verdicts. Lions series can do that. Often do that.

Jonathan Davies is in many teams of the last decade primarily because of the 2017 Lions tour. A certain French referee is first remembered for that offsides call. Alun Wyn Jones is wrecking his shoulder forever to overcome how he got warburtoned. Morne Steyn may have the same brilliant Springbok kick percentage as Handre Pollard, but there was that kick.

That pure Lions assassination kick at Loftus in 2009. Kieran Read’s sheepish face at the drawn trophy betrays he knows, oh how he knows, he can never reach the stature of Richie McCaw. When I think of Kurtley Beale, I think of that slip. When Ronan O’Gara comes to mind, I see him undercutting Fourie du Preez, as the Lions coaches roar ‘nooooooo’ in slow motion.

And then we also connect to the mists of time: for South Africans, the horror of 1974, the infamous 99 call and those 1997 misses, those three unanswered, unconverted tries, with that soul-crushing drop by Guscott.

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A large part of the magic is the gap. The 12-year interruption burnishes the legends. For almost every host coach, this is their one chance. For a South African coach, even a World Cup winner, it will definitely make or break him. For players, they know the red-hot pressure of a Lions tour is the first calibrator of their ability to handle their nerves.

The 2021 Lions tour won’t end the Lions. Our sport is not doomed. Coaches and players and fans and pundits and referees have been shithouse for all of the Lions tours history. Warren Gatland is a dickhead. Everyone knows it, but few can say it.

It drove Rassie Erasmus so mad he became a dickhead, and testosterone made him an even bigger dickhead. His leaked video was passive (he never raised his voice, pretended to be a pure analyst in the service of fair play and never did what Eddie Jones did – with his ‘we are playing against 16’ jibe—or Cheika screaming ‘f—-ing cheats’ at the refs) but also inherently aggressive, because he is one of the most popular, powerful figures in rugby, and Nic Berry is just a struggling young referee, who still has a lot of poor performances and cannot defend himself from Rassie, a force of nature, full of charisma and fire.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus looks on

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Even after the bitter Second Test, if you watch the excellent footage from SuperSport at the whistle, you see almost all the players (not Stuart Hogg and obviously not Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was late-tackled out of the series finale by clumsy bull Duhan van der Merwe) embrace, chat and congratulate each other. Damian de Allende may have been kneed in the throat by hardman Maro Itoje, who collapsed melodramatically when de Allende reversed the position and cocked his fist at the Lions lock; but in the post-Test, he was hugging Itoje and both smiled.

They know. They know who’s who and what’s what. Faf de Klerk may have known he would miss the Third Test; he was hugging everyone.

Eben Etzebeth — whose jaw was rattled by a card-able high tackle in the first minute of the match by Mako Vunipola — was in control of every handbag. Maybe his psychotic smile told us something every designated Bok enforcer has ever known: ‘we have them, now.’

But do they? Is the fourth half, the 21-0 half, the dominant last 40:00, is that the tide? Can Gatland’s six changes (which unbelievably spared van der Merwe) rescue the tour?

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Erasmus is staring at worldwide calumniation, a hefty fine from World Rugby for allegedly violating Regulation 18 (bringing rugby itself into disrepute by bashing a ref), and if the Boks lose, even if Jacques Nienaber really is the coach (and the evidence is there, with Kwagga Smith keeping a place in the 23, the player Nienaber identifies with), Rassie will be the scapegoat, the Icarus, the flake who flew too far and will pay a huge price.

Gatland could be turned into a cautionary tale if he chokes on a 1-2 loss after winning the first Test, and having his knee on the Boks’ collective necks: all three Tests in Cape Town, where the Boks almost never win, at sea level, with only a Georgian gallop since the 2019 final, half the team COVID-ravaged, several of the best players knocked out or retired, only two weeks of collective training, no fans and quarantined in hotels just like the Lions.

Warren Gatland

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It might become a narrative — that most deadly of 21st-century fates — of holding on too long, Warrenball never really being enough to win the really big ones, World Cup failure, the wrong captain, sentiment affecting selections and that ominous Chiefs failure the canary in the Welsh coal mine.

Thus, both men went mad. But only one coaching staff lost their minds in selection.

The Lions have switched between a slowing Conor Murray and half-a-faf Ali Price at 9. Finn Russell and Marcus Smith were flown over but have not seen a test. The all-important 13 selection was botched back in the U.K. when the fifth and tenth best outside centres were picked. And in the end, an Aki-Henshaw midfield will play in the final.

The front rows of the Lions seem to be fading, just as the Bok fatsos are peaking. And we would have to say Liam Williams and Josh Adams, two boys Gatland knows so well, were absolutely necessary, along with unselected Jonny May, who can chase all day like a Lab.

On the Bok side, only injury (Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Faf, RG Snyman) and retirement (Beast Mtwarira, Francois Louw) have altered the team from 2019.

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The Lions have struggled to get across the gainline with the lowest metres per carry ever recorded by Opta in a tier-one Test (the second Test). Dan Biggar only passed three times in the second Test. With the same number of carries, the Boks almost doubled the gains.

Dan Biggar lines up a pass

(Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

To get around the up-and-in shoot defence, the Lions have used only two methods: a 45-degree out-the-back pass pattern which is snuffed out 20 metres backwards, or very predictable kicks to the Bok back three or sweepers. The result of all this is only one try (a maul from five metres) and one disallowed try from deep in Bok territory.

This could work, as it did against New Zealand in the semifinal against England or the Lions decider in New Zealand, but South Africa seems to be unlocking the Lions structures now.

On that basis, the safest bet appears to be the Springboks by a comfortable margin, a range of six to ten, on a shaky pitch, because of continuity, a more powerful pack and the better, more settled backline, if a backline with only 240 minutes of game time can be called settled.

And what of Erasmus’ meditation? Was it designed for a leak? I think so. Was it pure? No, it was not primarily to trigger reform. It was to seize control of the ‘narrative’ (sorry) and deflect pressure from his players, and while it was not referee abuse (let’s all toughen up, guys), the problem was it had the effect of insouciant bullying, the kind where the coolest lad in school vaporises the younger boy who just joined.

Anthony Watson of the British & Irish Lions is tackled

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The overall sense I have — and I listened to it twice on my bicycle — is Rassie has fallen into several traps, but in contrast to some of the commentary I’ve seen on The Roar, he is not without honour, he is not crazy and it is not a ‘rant.’

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Rassie is famous now, and beloved by a nation, and not immune to vanity. He has asked himself that awful question, the one we must never voice or think or feel: “Don’t they know who I am?”

In the lead-up to the series, Rassie felt disrespected. Then, outmaneuvered. Then, angry.

So, he wanted the head of referees to hear his grievances. He framed the issue wrongly: “Who did this to us?” the ancient anthem of righteous victims. None of us is righteous. And Rassie is not a victim. But he worked his way into that mentality, partly to get the edge back from wily Gatland, who had cowed the TMO for the first Test with far fewer words and no video, but life and morality and press plays are not about length or medium.

The false flag was fairness. Rassie also indulged in the fantasy of reform. Referee reform is needed, but we also have a shortage of good referees. Berry has a long way to go before he is a good referee, but the point is we need him to get better and not depart the sport.

I don’t believe Rassie when he says the video is for the head of referees only. His tone is for a wider audience. And the leak came from a contact. And the production took a team. And it would make no sense for him to say it might end up causing him to be suspended.

The video is more a dissection — from one side — than a rant. You can learn a lot from it. It explains processes. It reveals philosophies. It makes no sense to dismiss it merely because it does not show unwhistled Bok fouls.

Handre Pollard of South Africa

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Why would it? But it is also a mistake to say (a) the Lions could produce a similar video with the same number of errors (they couldn’t because there weren’t on that day; it was about 2:1 and the Lions got the rub of the green, albeit not intentionally, I feel) or (b) “you could do this on every match.”

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This was an especially difficult Test to ref. That’s where Rassie is way off. When both Lions and Boks choose to play this attritionally at the breakdown, with 30 power athletes, speed off the charts and cutting corners, very few refs could get it mostly right, and Berry just was not up to it, yet. A handful of refs could have got the 90 per cent that is needed.

World Rugby refuses to publish error rates. They don’t tell us which refs are in the top tier for what reason. There must be stats. There must be an acceptable error rate (ten per cent? 15?) and there must be a reason some refs are dropped. Explain it to us. Pay the top tier more.

Be clear about errors; instead of cherry-picking a few (Craig Joubert) and blanket protecting all others. And for flips’ sake, give reviews to teams on Sundays, not Tuesdays. Refs can rest all week; teams select and game plan immediately. The best time to review is when your memory is fresh.

Still, Rassie was wrong to leak a video like this, because it is so long that it won’t be watched fully by most. A leak is wrong. But if it was to be leaked, he needed to sum it up: we want the AWJ (Rassie calls him “Alwyn”) special relationship to stop, we want clarity on side entry on limbs, seatbelts, offsides calls being shared with the AR, and the TMO comm process cleaned up. Then, give a few examples, make fun of himself, congratulate the victors, and make sure he gave Berry every benefit of every doubt, without sarcasm.

Fair points he made were about Tom Curry’s obvious late charge on Faf and entering the ruck from a side and lifting the legs of Makazole Mapimpi, Elliot Daly holding back Mapimpi (this appears to be wrong, per Nick Bishop, because holding back is not dangerous enough to cancel out a prior knock-on, in review, but Rassie is right that this does not appear in the laws), Van der Merwe tip-cleaning Mapimpi from the wrong side of a ruck, inconsistency in advantage time (eight seconds and ‘over’ versus twenty-four, which was quite odd), seat belt tackles, judgments in ball placement, Hamish Watson’s tip tackle, Etzebeth being taken in the air and Ox Nche’s injury caused by that man Curry scrummaging dangerously.

Courtney Lawes of British & Irish Lions

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The non-try for le Roux is well-taken by Rassie. The issue is once the try was awarded, the TMO could not say it was ‘tight’ and then say it was clearly offside. This was a bad one.

He is not on as sound ground when he questions pings of Kwagga, Trevor Nyakane and Etzebeth, because those are sheer judgement calls and go both ways, every weekend. He nitpicks on five incidents, as well.

Where he is on the least solid ground, I feel, is comparing how Berry treats Kolisi compared to Jones. The Wales captain is a master at commanding referees’ attention. Jones has earned that. It is part of the game. Kolisi was co-captained by Vermeulen and Pollard at the World Cup, in part because they used to stay on for 80:00 in big games.

I believe that is the one point that will get him fined the most, because it requires reading motives. I did not see a racial angle, but some Roarers I respect see an implication. I think not. I think race in South Africa is not some esoteric game; if he saw racism, he would say it. But it was irresponsible because playing the victim card encourages others to do so, and they may inject racial politics into a game we desperately love to clean up from that.

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So, the game itself is still far more interesting, but I wanted to write about the video, too.

Boks to win it. Lions to cry foul. But in the end, the players embrace. The refs will sigh with relief, but also, they are more famous each decade, and will milk it. The coaches? I don’t know, but both will have given all of themselves, and so it matters that much.

Some will disagree with this, some will call me one-eyed, others three-eyed, but to me, this has been compelling, strange and I have plenty of time for it, and I’ll be watching, heart in hand.

After time has passed, and passions cool, I am sure our sport will continue, stronger and no one person is bigger (not even refs) than the whole.

Good luck lads on both sides, and Lions make sure you miss your kicks!

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