The last tactical advantage the British & Irish Lions have over the Springboks
Heading into the second test expecting a big response from the Springboks, Warren Gatland didn’t want to have to use a get-out-of-jail-free card, but now the Lions have to use their second bite at the apple to win the series.
In the aftermath of the Lions’ 27-9 loss in the second test against the Springboks, there was one comment made by Gatland that was innocuous but has a deeper meaning below the surface, and shows he isn’t despondent about his side’s chances after the loss.
It was Gatland’s comment about South Africa putting a “huge amount of emotion” into the game that shows the coach believes he could have one last advantage heading into the final test.
“There are a few things we’ve got to tidy up,” he said after the loss to the Springboks.
“It’s 1-1 and South Africa put a huge amount of emotion into that game. We’ve got that chance next week to hopefully take the series.”
Having plenty of experience as the British & Irish Lions head coach across three tours now, Gatland has seen this situation before in 2013 when the Wallabies came back to win the second test and level the series.
After two tense games that came down to the last kick, the Lions blew the doors off the Wallabies in the third and final decider to secure a 2-1 series victory.
Gatland knows the role emotion plays in professional rugby and how it can be both a gift and a curse.
Following his tenure as Wales coach at the end of the 2019 World Cup, Gatland gave an all-ranging interview with Irish media outlet Off The Ball, where he spoke about what he learned about emotion over his career and during that Australia tour.
“The thing about that week is, I look back on it, I went into that game [third test] based from previous experiences,” Gatland explained on OTB, before bringing up his quip to Eddie Jones after England had beaten the All Blacks.
“That’s why I made that comment before the World Cup final, ‘Some teams play their final in the semi-final’, because at the very elite level of professional sport, it is the emotion that counts.”
Gatland’s premonition did come true; the Springboks would go on to stun England in the final, proving to be the freshest team on the last day of the tournament as England couldn’t replicate their semi-final deeds.
“And sometimes when you have a great performance, and you’re emotionally charged and you are right on the edge, it is difficult to repeat that,” he said.
“When I look back on my experience coaching, there is two examples that really stand out for me.
“One was in London coaching Wasps, and we played Leicester in the last round. Martin Johnson’s last game and Neil Back’s last game.
“I completely underestimated the emotion of that, and what impact that had [on the match].
“So Leicester beat us 45-25 or something like that and went straight to the final, then we went into the qualifier semi-final, won that, and then I didn’t think they [Leicester] could bring that same level of emotion the following week.
“We put 40 points on them in the final.
“It was the same scenario with Australia in the second test in 2013. I saw James Horwill, tears running out of his eyes. The effort they had put into that, the energy, I didn’t think they could bring the same the following week.”
Gatland’s post-match comment around South Africa putting a “huge amount of emotion” into the second test shows he may be thinking along the same lines in 2021.
It was an emotionally-charged week which clearly showed the pressure the Springboks camp was under. They came out breathing fire and salvaged the series with a performance throttling the red line and using that fuel.
Pride was on the line – the world champion Springboks were desperate to prove their credentials in the series that they had put on a pedestal.
Bowing out in two games would be, all things considered, a total catastrophe for the number one ranked side in their first real test as champions.
There were many instances of emotions spilling over in the game, with even the likes of normally composed Cheslin Kolbe showing an outburst of anger to shove Tom Curry back after he had unintentionally taken Conor Murray out in the air.
Willie le Roux was flaring up at any chance, peacocking around with his chest pumped out, yelling profanities, getting in the face of Lions players and running to the ref at every opportunity in an emotive display.
Eben Etzebeth, after being outclassed by Itoje in the first test, was on a warpath to collar-grab every Lions forward he could to demonstrate his prowess.
It showed there was clearly a massive amount of pressure and emotional toll on the Springboks to save face this week, yet the cost of doing so is to be determined, both mentally and physically.
Pieter-Steph du Toit being forced from the field in the first 20 minutes and not returning is not a good sign for his chances of playing the final game. Faf de Klerk left with what looked like cramps but his status is unknown.
The good news is Duane Vermeulen is back in camp to ease some of the concerns.
Desperation brings a different energy as we have just seen. The Springboks have not yet faced a desperate Lions side.
Gatland’s own desperate Lions team in 2017 squared the series in New Zealand in the second test, only to fall just short of a series victory with a slice of luck saving them from series defeat in the final moments.
The Lions only have to play one emotionally-charged game with their series on the line, this coming week, while the Springboks have to do it all again for a second time.
You could sense the relief in the Springboks coaching group on full-time, high-fiving and hugging, while Siya Kolisi looked exhausted sitting on the sideline after a magnificent individual performance.
The problem? Relief is not the feeling you need to have right now. The lessening of desperation and the weight slightly dissipating makes it even harder to maintain the emotive state the Springboks were able to use in this game.
It is unlikely Rassie Erasmus pulls through this week with more victim-mentality complaints to whip his squad into the frenzied, aggrieved, rage against faux injustice.
While the Springboks tally the casualties, the Lions have fresh cavalry waiting in the wings if necessary.
Plenty of players haven’t really featured that could be called upon: Liam Williams, Bundee Aki, Louis Rees-Zammit, Hamish Watson, Tadhg Beirne, among hoards of other test starters, all of whom would be itching to get onto the field to play a part in the series.
If you look at the 27-9 scoreline in isolation, you are missing the picture. The game was in the balance until the 61st minute at 11-9 and the Springboks had to scrap and fight to that point to get the job done.
It was not a comfortable game, although it ended a comfortable win. Extrapolating that result won’t chart a course through the final third test.
The beauty of a series is the differing set of motivations throughout each game. There are unequal incentives which play a part.
In the first test, both sides know they have another day. In the second test, one is playing to secure the series, the other out of desperation to keep it alive. One side has the carrot and the other the stick.
By the third and final test if the series 1-all, both incentives are finally aligned, but they are enter the game in totally different mental states.
Gatland knows that one team may have already played their final. He’s seen it before and knows when a team is emotionally drained and his comments suggest he may believe the Springboks are there.
The Springboks will need to effectively play two finals in a row to win the series. And that is an enormous ask.
Hats off if they can do it.
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