Ben Kay: This tour hasn't enhanced the Lions brand
Many will think it strange me saying this, but I thought in many ways it was a brilliant performance by the Lions. They put themselves in a clear position to win the Series. Think about it, they went toe-to-toe with South Africa in a lot of the key areas, particularly the lineout drive which had been such a weapon in the Second Test. Okay, taking high balls could have been better and the scrum started to lose parity late on but if you look at the stats from the game, you’d be convinced that the Lions had won it.
They dominated the key metrics with 63 per cent territory and possession. They were up on metres gained, defenders beaten, clean breaks, gainline carries, offloads, turnovers won, their tackle percentage was better, their goal kicking percentage was better, their ruck success was better, their lineout success was better. I could go on. In fact, the only place the Boks trumped them was at scrum time and the number of penalties conceded, but even in that area the Lions conceded seven in their own half compared to the Boks’ nine.
It all boiled down to the Boks being more efficient. When they got their opportunities, they took them. Most winning teams can balance keeping the scoreboard ticking over with metaphorically having their foot on the throat of the opposition. When you feel you’ve got them, you squeeze them until they crack and build a cushion so that it creeps up on the opposition, to the extent that they realise they have to change how they’re playing and chase the game which leads to mistakes. The Lions failed to do that. They were perfectly entitled to go for the corner, but they didn’t get the return they needed to tick the scoreboard over. It was similar in the Second Test when they went in with a six-point lead at half-time. This time out they went in at 10-6 up and it wasn’t enough of a cushion to protect.
Even though the Lions were on the wrong end of the scoreboard, in some ways, I’m glad we did get a winner – I mean you couldn’t make it up that Morne Steyn would nail the points, ridiculous – because I remember being in Auckland in 2017 with TalkSport. The game was so tense and then at the final whistle there was this massive emotional comedown as if to say, ‘is that it?’. If there’s one amend required for Australia, it’s to put an extra-time clause in!
The Lions, of course, had themselves to blame. The return they had in the red zone simply wasn’t good enough. They scored with their first lineout drive but had another two lineout drives which they failed convert or get points from, and it cost them. Then they had the Liam Williams botched try which ended up being the difference between the two sides on the day. People will blame Liam there, but Josh could have timed his run better. When Liam goes to throw that pass, he realises that defender is a little further than him than he needs so he’s trying to hold that ball until he can release, and Josh has overrun him. Maybe it was the desperation of knowing you had to score.
Contrast that with Cheslin Kolbe’s try. If you watch it back, the way the Boks turn it in to an opportunity for all the attackers, not just Kolbe, is sublime. Willie Le Roux and Cobus Reinach also swept around to attack one defender as a unit and the finish from Kolbe is world class. While he’s beating Liam Williams with his feet, he’s looking up to see what he’s going to do with Cowan-Dickie, and in one movement he pushes off the Exeter Chief with a fend and uses his momentum to pull away. I’m not surprised it’s being compared to his try against England in the 2019 World Cup Final, it’s very similar.
If you look back at where the Series was lost, in terms of red zone, the Springboks only got in the Lions 22 six times last week, three in each half but in the second half they scored on every entry into the Lion 22. Contrast that with the Lions who got into Boks 22 on 11 occasions but only scored two penalties from them.
The Springboks deliver when it matters
I would still say the All Blacks are the best team in the world, but the Springboks are the masters at high-pressure Test match rugby – that’s why they’re World Champions. They play a style of rugby that Eddie Jones tried to employ in the Six Nations, but it didn’t work. It’s not about entertainment value, it’s simply the best way statistically of winning a game of rugby in a high-pressure environment.
As punters, when we look at stats, we look at all results, which include games against weaker nations like Italy. What you should look at is how games are won when the top sides play against each other in high-pressure competitions. When Rassie Erasmus took over in 2018, South Africa were sixth in the world, so he said, ‘that’s not good enough, we are going to play a brand of rugby that’s going to get us back to No 1 in the world’. Of course, with that backline, they have the talent to tear any team apart, but they choose not to, because it’s not the most successful way to play Test rugby. Next season the 50-22 ruling comes in and the goal line dropout, so it will be interesting to see how they adapt their tactics.
Finn Russell steals the show
When Finn sauntered on with a cheeky smile, it was like his performance was written in the stars. He was fantastic. The tactics did change a bit when he came on because his confidence was infectious. He tried passes on a delay that maybe Dan Biggar wouldn’t have tried and it affected the South African’s line speed. Defenders were a little wary of him and dropped off, so forward runners are getting a bit more traction. He was playing a matador role by inviting defenders to hit him and then throwing pop passes. The end result was those tip-on passes were starting to happen, rather than simply one-off runners.
We all know he had a little Achilles injury but I’d have understood if Finn wasn’t selected earlier. You pick different combinations for different scenarios. For instance, I can see why Gatland picked Farrell on the bench in the Second Test; to keep it tight and kick a pressure penalty if needed. Gatland will say in the media, ‘it’s my fault we lost’ but did he get in wrong? He was out in South Africa and lost by three points. He had more opportunities that the opposition in the deciding game and in many ways got everything right, apart from the execution.
The post-tour comedown
Now the tour is over every player will react differently depending on their own situations. After the 2005 tour, or indeed any England Six Nations, there was no time for me to mope, I had to park it because at Tigers there was always someone vying for my position. I had Louis Deacon, Jim Hamilton and Leo Cullen all happy to take my place. There was no, ‘I’ll pick you because you’re a Lion or an England player.’ That was tough to deal with.
There will undoubtedly be a psychological toll similar to a World Cup because there has been no opportunity to switch off or get away. The pressure consumes you, especially on this tour. Usually, Lions tours are fun with lots going on, visiting places of interest and fans but not this one. At the moment, they’ll be saying, ‘I’ll be fine’ but they won’t know until they get back to their clubs when the emotional toll will catch up with them. They will need to be kept an eye on.
Looking ahead to Australia 2025
Despite protestations to the contrary, I don’t see the Lions preparation time changing ahead of the 2025 tour. With the numerous existing stakeholders that’s all they’ll get. Ironically, had the Lions been played off the park then they may have had more of a case for asking for more but in a way, the precedent was set in New Zealand. That tour was the worst thing that could have happened because they had a drawn Series against the mighty All Blacks, so calls for more preparation time may fall on deaf ears. I know for a lot of people, the Lions is the be all and end all, but it doesn’t play the player’s wages. It’s not the bedrock of the game, it’s the cherry on top. The Lions can’t centrally contract players four years out, because selection only takes place six weeks before the tour. In many ways it’s remarkable it’s kept going in the professional age.
Saying that, I don’t believe the Lions is in any danger because of the love people have for it. It is still a huge marketing tool for rugby. The issue they’ve had with this tour is the rugby wasn’t up to much and we had no crowds to cover that up. The tour that saved the concept was the 1997 tour but why did we love it? It was because of the drama and the fans. If you’d put 55,000 in that Cape Town Stadium on three consecutive weekends with the cameras picking up the atmosphere, the nerves, the elation and the heartbreak, you would have been prepared to forget some of the rugby. This tour hasn’t enhanced the Lions brand, but it hasn’t diminished it. In the current circumstances, credit must go to them for getting it over the line.
The great thing about Lions tours is that they are all so different. Australia should present a different challenge style-wise. Will whoever takes the Lions out there look to play a more expansive style? What we do know if we can expect some serious talent to travel. Of course, we all know about Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith, but look at No 9 position? We have youngsters like Raffi Quirke and Jack van Poortvliet, who will be fighting it out for the England shirt soon and people are so excited by them. That will be the same for plenty of other positions. The Wallabies also have some quality players coming through and the tour will give everyone a good refresh about how attractive rugby can be. We now have four years to whet the appetite. I’m already counting down the clock.
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