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Losing all control: The 2021 Lions tour of South Africa

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Expert
12th August, 2021
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Coaches control. They are control freaks. Coaches invented a plural. They speak of controlling the ‘controllables’. But they don’t really believe in the uncontrollable.

COVID-19 robbed rugby of a proper Lions tour this year. The pandemic also made fewer things controllable: timing, practice, locations, selections, health and beer.

If control freakiness were a sport, Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus would be vying to be the greatest of all time. Gatland does it in an underhanded way. Old school. He has the CEO, the chairman and the managing director in his pocket. He has a medical team of eight. He uses a sports scientist and four analysts. He is corporate rugby.

Seconds after his side narrowly lost to the Boks, who in truth were there for the taking, with almost a joke array of misfortune and inaction handicaps, Gatland had been endorsed by his board – it is his – to lead the Lions to Australia in four years.

When he controls the media narrative he seamlessly plants a story in the seven main outlets of Britain and Ireland with implausible deniability but without attribution – and yet identical and verbatim. Then, in the press conference, pursing his lips and furrowing and then unfurrowing his brow, with his highly credible and lifelong hairstyle buttressing his protestations, Gatland undersells and understates, blazered and blase, which sends his capitalist backers into fox-hunting, wine-chinoed rapture.

The good colonial. More British than the British nowadays. The OBE and CBE he has already, but perhaps more titles await?

Rassie is a rascal. But he does not rest. He does not respect anything he cannot touch or measure or see. No bowing for him. He turned down the Springbok job until they gave him everything: overseas players, a wink-wink-nod relaxation of the quotas (if he won), being the boss of himself and naming his successor, the movie rights, and personal ownership of the high-performance stats and trade secrets.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus looks on

Rassie Erasmus (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As close as it comes to complete coach control. Gatland still aspires to this level.

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The old hand who looks a decade older than he is and is four inches shorter than his listed Waikato playing height of six foot two versus the boyish fox who still looks six foot four but carrying a few too many trays of coronavirus pizza binges. Control.

Warren controls himself. Rassie far less so. But their teams? Both play control rugby.

Rassie has a right-hand man: Jacques Nienaber, who is known in Ireland as one of the oddest coaches but extremely effective. What does Nienaber do? He controls attacks. He attacks the attack of foes. His record is stellar wherever he has coached.

Within a few months he has his teams shooting up in a pattern based on disruption behind the line, the fitness to cut in from out repetitively, shorter times on the floor than most, a high proportion of dominant tackles with plenty of misses followed by a nasty cover defence in which clean breaks are almost punished by diagonal flyers.

In 2019 and 2021 Nienaber’s defence conceded just 14 tries in 16 Tests in this pattern: two, one, one, two, one, two, zero, zero, one, zero, one, zero, zero, one, zero and one, with an ascending level of opposition and stakes. Four tries conceded in the last ten Tests, which span a Lions tour and a World Cup.

It is not just a rush defence. It is a different appreciation of statistics honed into clear messages and translated behaviour.

A Bok who gets behind the opposition flyhalf’s line of sight, hits a shin and loses the tackle is not running back with head down. He gets a point in the post-match review. He made the outside centre stop. A good example is Chris Harris shirking off Cheslin Kolbe. The Boks did not mind. To do that he had to come to a complete stop. He and the Lions attack became controllable.

Even if Lukhanyo Am’s hit on Elliot Daly had been ruled to be high (it was not), Nienaber would have congratulated Am for the greater good he did in persuading the Lions to stop passing to No. 13 from set piece for the next 120 minutes of the series.

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Nienaber’s system turns props (even bearish Frans Malherbe) into risk-tolerant tacklers because he scores a dominant tackle as a No. 5 and ‘just a tackle’ as a No. 1.

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Many of South Africa’s tries come from winning the contact zone, collecting the scraps and switching on an immediate counterattack. Decades of being done by Kiwis in this fashion using clever kicks and Bok spills have taught something.

The perfect Nienaber schema is to have the ball less than the opposition but to exploit the ball better and go on offence against the offence. Rassie’s partner in crime is just another, nicer, quieter control freak.

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Rugby is often seen as a game of combinations. Players gel. Passes stick. The breakdown is not broken when a loose trio knows what height to arrive and who is doing what. But coaching combinations are also key.

Erasmus-Nienaber versus Gatland-Townsend equalled advantage South Africa.

Gatland and Townsend appear to have battled for control. There was only going to be one winner in that fight: the Springboks.

The fight for the Lions steering wheel resulted in a revolving door at No. 13 – because Gatland wanted Daly and Townsend and his big boy Harris, and they forgot a handful of proper No. 13s at home – the selection of fast forwards who never got to play and the deselection of big tank carriers who would have helped the Lions make more than 1.24 metres per carry in the vital second Test, and no out-and-out chasers (like Jonny May) who could replicate the work rate and cussedness of Makazole Mapimpi and Kolbe.

Were the Lions trying to out-Bok the Boks? Maybe. And the worst thing that could have happened was fool’s gold in the Cape. Everyone knows the gold is in the Rand.

An early maul in which the Boks competed and had no cattle down to repel the raid resulted in a try which the Lions fixated on the rest of the series. Ultimately that is all the Lions got: maul tries – two scored, one disallowed because of too much curry on their rice and a few attempts stolen by a rampant Eben Etzebeth or hyperactive Franco Mostert or sacked by Etzebeth and co.

The first Test taught Gatland a false lesson which he probably attacked his attack coach with: we can outmuscle these underdone Boks, we can get even better while they cannot and we don’t need to play any other kind of rugby than ten-man safety ball, attack Kwagga Smith, control off No. 9 and a couple of yards and cloud of dust.

Speaking of dust. The pitch at Cape Town Stadium was a villain. Maybe even a greater villain than Rassie the ranter, who gave the world a taste of what a post-match video complaint looks like. No wonder the referees look sour. Enough has been written about how dastardly Rassie was, and how he has well nigh doomed all that is good and decent and brave about rugby, but I will say this: it was all about getting back control. Control of the narrative. That was it. And so perhaps it worked.

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Enter one-cap Jasper Wiese and his filthy moustache. He has battered the English boys in the premiership. Hard. But he’s not that smart a player, really. Still, you add Wiese and beefy Marco van Staden to the mix, start with Malherbe and Kitshoff around Test animal Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager off the bench and suddenly the Lions weren’t so proud. The 21-0 skunking in the second half of the second Test was the turning of the tide in the series.

Selection for the third Test told the story of what the second Test did: No. 22 for each team was telling. Morne Steyn was selected to win the series from the tee. Finn Russell was supposed to come in in the second half to come from behind along with five other changes. The Boks sat pat, confident.

And so it did come down to a kick, as it often does. And territory. And moments.

Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Lions series are low-scoring affairs. The average score is in the teens, whether Kiwis or Saffas are defending their home turf – 17-10 New Zealand or 13-11 South Africa in their 83 per cent and 63 per cent win rates respectively. The Lions are always, always, always better for combining four unions. Always.

Don’t listen to any so-called expert who moans about the challenges of knitting four teams together. The Lions play the Boks and the All Blacks far closer than any of their constituent parts do, have or can. They have no weaknesses on the pitch or the bench.

The only team with the depth to tour South Africa for a three-Test series and win would be England. And they would have lost to this Bok team by more than the Lions did.

The price we pay for the tightness of Lions series is the lower scores. There is no space. There is no time. Everyone is fast and strong.

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Gatland fielded a team with 1334 caps in the first Test, all having played two recent Six Nations campaigns – a 602-cap advantage over the Boks, who had not played any Test rugby since 2019. So we can see his mentality. It is classic. Old school. Dour.

The Bok coaches trusted players like Ox Nche (two caps) to front the imperious Tadhg Furlong, young Wiese to anchor the scrum, Malherbe to call the defence and 15-cap Am to structure the backfield defence. Damian Willemse (seven caps) replaced Francois Steyn. A 553-cap starting team for the first Test was the least capped in ages.

But the Lions had less clarity.

How was Sam Simmonds going to be Tom Croft if he never touched the ball in space? What was the Price-Murray-Price-Murray parade supposed to do? Fair play to Bundee Aki, but Robbie Henshaw is a rugby prince and just needed a partner at No. 13 to play rugby. Garry Ringrose, Jon Davies and Henry Slade were available, no?

Lukhanyo Am is a handful. His combination is more with his fullback and wings, and he defends like a faster flank. Damian de Allende combines with himself because he loves the way he looks, but he made more ground after contact than Aki and Henshaw combined, often digging the Boks out of deep holes. Am de Allende is a well-settled midfield who get over the ball, slow it, steal it, and Am ignites counters.

In the World Cup final it was Am who scooped the ball that spilled from a dominant Malcolm Marx tackle of Slade and fed it to Pieter-Steph du Toit – the unluckiest of all in this series, because he was in red-hot form – to shoot to Kolbe to skin Owen Farrell. In the third Test, Am found the hot potato ball, took it into contact on purpose because he wanted to offload to a streaking Willie, who went to Jack Conan’s inside shoulder to give Kolbe that tiny space he needed to flummox Liam Williams and fend off the Lions hooker and waltz into Bok history. Am is, in Brian O’Driscoll’s words, a “proper player”.

Rassie lost control. And gained control. And maybe lost more than he gained. Or maybe he just became a whole lot more influential. But he wanted control.

Gatland perhaps took too much control from Townsend, from his preferred No. 10 (Dan Biggar famously passed only three times in the pivotal second Test), from players like Conan and Price and the backline. That cameo by Finn Russell showed that sometimes a rock star can invent moments that are uncontrollable, and that is not a bad thing.

Maro Itoje is a great player because he is uncontrollable. He and Etzebeth squared off, and I gave it to the Bok enforcer (9-10, 10-9, 10-9). But the Lions needed more Itoje and less Biggar.

South Africa, if they go on to win a couple of Rugby Championship trophies and repeat at the World Cup in 2023, will be seen very differently with ‘just’ a cup and a Lions win now. If they revert to lovable second or third place again, they’ll be more popular, but something tells me this is a very difficult squad to understand and rate.

The Boks knew how to win, and they did. The Lions could have made it even closer, but one feels the Boks would have just upped it a notch.

Control is illusory. We adapt. We barely survive. We fight for life and all its glory. A desperate fighter who defends himself with all he has. This is the human story.

The Springboks are back. The Lions vanquished. The All Blacks await. Nobody controls rugby; not the clubs in France, not the British unions, not any one team, not the referees, not the mob, not any one coach, certainly not Rassie and not even World Rugby. A constant contest for possession is our credo. Control be damned.

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