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Did the British & Irish Lions get their tactics wrong in the series against the Springboks?

By RugbyPass
(Photos by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions at the end of 2021, looking back at the year that was in context to what lays ahead. Alex McLeod (AM), Tom Vinicombe (TV), Nick Turnbull (NT), Mike Rehu (MR), Ben Smith (BS), Jordan King (JK), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Finn Morton (FM) weigh in on a range of topics on the international game and more in this end-of-2021 review. 

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The British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa was supposed to be a highlight of the 2021 calendar year but failed to live up to expectations as the restrictions on travel and crowds meant that the Lions supporters could not fill the stands in South Africa. The on-field rugby was also widely criticised, failing to live up to the spectacle that fans expected.

The visitors overcame a 12-3 deficit in the first half of the first test to pull off a 22-17 win, giving the Lions an unlikely 1-0 series lead. The series took a sour turn when a video of Springboks Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus criticising the refereeing decisions from the first test ended up on social media after the loss.

With the series on the line, the Springboks fought back from a 9-6 halftime deficit to a keep the series alive with a 27-9 win in the second test.

In the third and final match, the two sides were locked 16-all before a penalty gave veteran flyhalf Morne Steyn the chance to take a late lead, which he gladly took to give the Springboks a 19-16 win and 2-1 series win.

Given the Lions had the early advantage in the series, the Round table panel weighs in on whether they got their approach wrong.

Did the British & Irish Lions get their tactics wrong in the series against the Springboks?

NT: Evidently. That is easy to say in hindsight but I thought the Lions did have the team to win the series but didn’t put it together when it mattered. Was it tactics alone? Probably not, but they had their part to play.

FM: The Lions let the Springboks play exactly how they would’ve wanted to play, and the results reflected that. With the amount of talent that the Lions had to pick from, and considering how South Africa didn’t play for a year due to Covid following the World Cup, the Lions really should not have lost this series.

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JK: Is the Pope Catholic? The Springboks had next to no preparation leading into the series after also having their rugby cancelled in 2020, and with all that being common knowledge I expected the Lions to use the ball and push the tempo.

Instead, they played the game at the exact pace the Springboks like to and took them on where their strengths lay.

MR: I think the British and Irish Lions did very well in even getting to South Africa and performing at the level they did. It’s become a real challenge to throw this selection together at the end of season and take on the Southern Hemisphere’s best. Throw in Covid and the lack of their partisan supporters on ground and the degree of difficulty doubled.

I don’t think you can fault Gatland’s tactics, he didn’t have time to mesh combinations together so needed a basic game plan.

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BS: Winning any series is all about adjustments along the way and staying ahead of the opponent. It’s hard to argue they got it wrong in the first test, where a second half barrage of box kicks were recovered and helped the Lions swing momentum frequently and win 22-17.

But in the second test they had a free roll of the dice being up 1-0 and didn’t take it. They tried to play a dour game that didn’t pay off.

The Springboks showed more initiative and were the ones to break the deadlock through a cross-field kick to Makazole Mapimpi from Handre Pollard with no advantage. That was a ballsy play and they were rewarded for taking risk with the first try of the game from which they built a strong lead.

The Lions played a low percentage game that generated few chances in that second test. They bombed a maul try through a Tom Curry obstruction in the first half and a last-ditch try saver by Kolisi prevented Robbie Henshaw getting the ball down from a smart Conor Murray dink kick.

Only when Finn Russell was inserted early in the third test did the Lions look more threatening, finally taking the ball to the edges where the Springboks defence was weak.

If you look at all the line breaks the Springboks conceded throughout the 2021 season, they were all out wide. The outside-in rush defence was operating far below the level they did in 2019 and if the Lions had realised that earlier they may have had more success.

Only the Wallabies seemed to understand this and they were the team that scored the most tries against South Africa and won both their games against them.

TV: Undoubtedly. The Lions played straight into the Springboks’ hands and would have certainly had more success if they hadn’t reduced themselves to playing a forward- oriented, kick-heavy style. The Springboks were undercooked and that could have been exploited with a bit more creativity.

AM: As the Wallabies expertly showed, running the Springboks off their feet rather than buying into their kick-heavy tactics tended to work well, but nobody seemed to tell the British and Irish Lions, who staged one of the most dire tours in recent memory with a string of dull test matches in the Republic.

Welsh wizard Louis Rees-Zammit has aired his frustrations about the tactics used by head coach Warren Gatland against the Springboks, and with talent of that level at your disposal, you’d have to agree with the youngster that a different approach might well have yielded better rewards for the Lions.

JO: Lions tours are always marred by controversy and this year was no exception. At times it got very ugly. In the series, the Lions played right into the Springboks hand by getting into a forward-focused, low-risk battle.

This is the Boks bread and butter, and the Lions never truly challenged them with too much innovative attack. The Lions had the squad, but couldn’t gel on the field. Imagine the outcome if they started Finn Russell throughout the series.

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