In what must be one of the least memorable Test series in recent memory, it is fair to say rugby was the real loser.
Years from now when people recall the 2021 Lions series the only talking points will be Covid, empty stadiums and Rassie Erasmus.
Admittedly, South Africa could do very little about the empty stadiums but the theatrics from Rassie and the awful tactics employed by the Boks were utterly reprehensible.
And it didn’t have to be that way.
Cheslin Kolbe must be the most exciting player on earth or close to it, but he hardly saw the ball. When he did, well he dazzled.
Handre Pollard can pass and run but you’d never have known it by the strategy he was asked to implement.
Even Eben Etzebeth jokingly noted that during breakfast before the third Test, Morne Steyn had commented that he hoped the Boks would be a little further ahead come the 75th minute than they were in 2009.
Across all three Tests Kolbe ran for 74 metres. When you take out the metres gained during the try he scored in the third Test, that means he averaged about 12-13 metres a game.
Despite playing ten and getting his hands on the ball more regularly than most, Pollard gained a sum total of 81 metres across the entire series.
They are the first victims of South Africa’s backwards approach to the game.
Springbok fans will no doubt blindly jump to their country’s defence. However, it isn’t just British and Irish Lions’ fans or even neutrals calling out the ugly tactics employed to win the series.
Earlier this year, major figures in South African rugby sounded the alarm regarding the way the game was being played even at provincial level.
Former Springbok assistant coach Swys de Bruin, who built an attacking side at the Super Rugby Lions said this:
“It’s almost like a storybook now… I can see there’s a scrum that will reset and reset again, then the advantage will come, then the next chapter is the penalty. From there the maul starts. Before the maul there is a little meeting with forwards that eats up more time.”
In what must be the understatement of the century, former Springbok coach Nick Mallet commented that the style of rugby throughout South Africa “doesn’t make for good viewing”.
Mallet went on to say “If you compare it with the way New Zealand cracked on with their Aotearoa competition, with teams really embracing the quick-ruck ball and ball-in-hand style. They were reasonably high-scoring games, but the defences were excellent and their attacks were great. It was rugby that was worth watching.”
Watching this Lions tour, I couldn’t help but agree with Mallet and think about the last three Lions Test series.
We had the immensely entertaining drawn series in 2017 which produced some of the great tries in history, including Sean O’Brien’s which was sparked by Liam Williams’ length of the field breakout.
In 2013, the Lions and Wallabies went toe to toe in a series that admittedly ended in Australia being overwhelmed by brute power. But both teams had a go and some excellent tries were scored.
The 2009 series produced, in my opinion at least, the greatest Lions Test of all time at Loftus Versfeld. In that match the Lions led 19-8 after 60 minutes before tries to Habana and Fourie set up Morne Steyn to win the first of his two Lions series with the last kick of the match.
Watching the highlights from that game is a spine tingling and gripping experience.
It was decided by a penalty in the last seconds but it was a different beast of a Test to the terrible excuse for a spectacle last weekend.
So why was 2021 so forgettable? Why is it that we can’t simply say it was ‘one for the purists’ and leave it at that.
Mallet and others have pointed to the isolation caused by Covid and match conditioning as being factors but have also noted that doesn’t excuse the South African provincial sides playing negative rugby.
Interestingly, the kick chase, set piece dominated, slow tempo, penalty seeking style of rugby from the Boks in 2020/21 is similar to what we saw in 1992/93 as their sides recommenced Test rugby after a period of international isolation. Perhaps it could be said that when South African rugby is not challenged by outside factors it returns to what it knows best.
Clearly the Springbok’s ‘brain trust’ had decided they’d win the Lions series whichever way they could, even if that included kicking, kicking and more kicking together with wasting time to such an extent that a single half of the third Test took 65 minutes to complete.
I’m sure there will be many who say “winning is winning”. That may be true but legacies are a little important too.
The World Cup final in 2003, the second Lions Test in 2009, the final Lions Test in 2017. The sides that played in those Tests left a legacy to the game. They are talked about as if they are immortal.
The Boks of 2021 will be remembered as boring and underhanded more than as winners which is sad in itself.
Put simply South Africa employed cynical tactics which were not in the spirit of rugby and have no place in the ‘entertainment business’.
Rassie Erasmus is a clever coach and his antics were not spur of the moment. His video appraisal of Nick Berry was partially correct but entirely uncalled for and sets a bad precedent. As Nigel Owens would say “this is not soccer”.
Much has been said about that issue. Less has been said about the time wasting and deliberate stoppages by the Boks which Erasmus clearly instigated.
As Swys de Bruin has noted with reference to his own provincial Lions, “In 2017 and 2018 we had 35 minutes of continuing play on average. We aimed for 40 but if we got 35 or 36 we were happy. I spoke to one of the Currie Cup analysts and they are hitting 24, 25, 26 minutes… so out of 80 minutes you see 25 minutes of rugby and that is a problem.”
I guess when the Boks pick three locks in their starting eight and one of the least mobile Test packs ever assembled, more than 25 minutes of rugby out of 80 is a tough ask.
Time and again we also saw the ‘water boy’ on the field, microphone in mouth with the men in green wandering slowly to the set piece or worse, standing in huddles or sitting on the ground taking instructions. Sometimes even while the clock continued to tick!
Trainers in addition to Erasmus, ran around behind play barking instructions presumably in relation to defensive formation and probably relayed in live time from the coaches box.
Why did World Rugby allow all this to go on? Should the referees have turned the blind eye that they did?
I should point out that I am a neutral and while I’m sure there will be some predictable comments incorporating salt emojis, I don’t really care.
It is one thing employing boring and quite frankly Neanderthal tactics, it is quite another bringing the game into disrepute and treating the rugby public as an afterthought.
There was nothing subtle, clever or innovative about how the Boks won this series. And they should be castigated for it.
While the series ‘win’ was undoubtedly uplifting for a nation struggling in more ways than one, what an achievement it would have been if the Boks had beaten the Lions and not just avoided losing.
You might win a Lions series and a World Cup by kicking the ball away and hoping, but you won’t beat the All Blacks. Hell, you might not even beat the Wallabies.