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The Springboks' win over the Lions was a dire promotion for rugby

By Tom Vinicombe

Trending on RugbyPass

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If the series between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions is supposed to be the pinnacle of world rugby, the game is in serious trouble.

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With time ticking over 80 minutes on the clock, flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked his fifth penalty of the game to hand South Africa a well-deserved 27-9 win to tie the series ahead of next weekend’s decider.

Truth be told, however, the clash hadn’t been an 80-minute affair.

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Springboks loose forward Duane Vermeulen is nearing a return to action.

From the time the game kicked off until the final whistle was blown, less halftime, 116 minutes had eclipsed.

After the furore following last weekend’s win to the Lions (most coming via Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ social channels), it wasn’t a major surprise that referee Ben O’Keeffe and his officiating team agonised over every decision.

They’ve been placed under immense pressure thanks to World Rugby letting Erasmus’ tirades go unchecked and with rugby fans from around the world tuning in to catch the match, O’Keeffe was always going to be particularly fastidious.

Penalties rained in the opening quarter, with every minor indiscretion picked upon by the Kiwi referee. By the time the final hooter sounded, 25 penalties had been collectively dished out to the two sides.

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It should go without saying that rugby is a complicated game and if you were to break down every single play, you’d undoubtedly be able to uncover countless indiscretions that typically go unpunished. Primarily, that’s because they have such a minor effect on the game and typically they’re evenly distributed between the two competitors on the day.

Unfortunately, Erasmus’s bleating throughout the week has put the spotlight on the officiating and O’Keeffe has been backed into a corner.

Add in the instances of foul play that were assessed during the match (though there were some that were missed), the ridiculous number of waterboys that seemed to invade the pitch every time the whistle was blown, and the technical communication issues, and it’s not difficult to see why the game ballooned out to almost two hours of ‘action’.

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And when the ball was in play, well, the resulting match we bore witness to certainly wouldn’t have won over any fans for the game.

At times it was almost difficult to tell when the referee had stopped play and when normal business had resumed, such was the stodginess of the rugby.

Both teams entered the game was ostensibly the same tactic – hoist the ball into the heavens and hope that the opposition makes a mistake.

Every bout of possession seemed to result in two or three carries from forwards before a scrumhalf or No 10 punted the ball to the sky, seemingly accepting they didn’t have the firepower to break down the opposition defence – even when both teams were reduced to 14 men.

At the best of times, it’s disappointing to watch – but we can at least appreciate some solid skills under the high ball. On Saturday, however, not one player really seemed to stand up in that facet of play.

Whether it was Stuart Hogg, Jasper Wiese or Duhan van der Merwe, high balls were dropped left, right and centre. The kicking team rarely seemed to reclaim the high ball – they simply disrupted the catcher and hoped for a favourable outcome.

It was scrappy, it lacked any essence of creativity or ingenuity, and perhaps most importantly, it was terrible to watch.

Last weekend’s snore-fest was saved by the fact that the game remained close throughout but with the Springboks pulling away in the final quarter of Saturday’s clash, there was really little for viewers to do but wait for the final whistle that would end everyone’s misery.

Sometimes statistics don’t tell the full story but they paint a clear picture of what unfolded in the second test.

The two teams collectively made just 171 passes and 157 runs. In last week’s slightly improved fixture, those figures totalled 197 and 168.

Much like at World Cups, the Springboks and Lions kept things relatively tight on Saturday – but even at the 2019 edition of the flagship competition, there was more expansive rugby on show.

In the grand final, England and South Africa collectively registered 250 passes and 212 runs. In the semi-final between South Africa and Wales (which, at the time, was considered a relatively dire kick-fest itself), fans were ‘treated’ to 182 passes and 183 runs.

The common theme, of course, is that the Springboks are involved in all these clashes – but the less expansive teams appear to bring out the worst in the world champions.

Against the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup, the two rivals strung together 262 passes and 214 runs (with 119 passes and 104 runs coming from the Springboks). Earlier in the year, in their 16-all drawn test in Wellington, it was a similar story.

South Africa has moved further and further towards an almost entirely kicking-oriented game since the finals of the World Cup.

Against the All Blacks in the pool stages, the Springboks made 24 kicks from hand. The number climbed to 37 against Wales (with only 39 per cent possession) then dropped back to 24 against England in the final, though they played that match with less ball than their game against New Zealand.

Against the Lions, however, that number has skyrocketed. The Springboks made 37 kicks in the first match and 44 in Saturday’s win.

The Lions, to their credit, have made closer to 30 kicks from hand in both tests – but the rest of their time spent with the ball is equally lacking in creativity.

Rarely did the ball make it past the first or second player in the backline when either side’s halfbacks delivered the pass out beyond the forwards and line breaks were unsurprisingly scarce.

Yes, the defences on display were impressive – but that’s what happens when it’s painfully easy to tell which player is going to be carrying the ball in any phase of attack.

By all accounts, it was a terrible spectacle – which is a major problem when the quadrennial tour is considered one of the most important events in the rugby calendar.

Perhaps the global pandemic has played its part, ensuring that neither team has necessarily gone into the series in tip-top shape. Heaven and Earth have been moved to ensure that this Lions tour has taken place but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the biggest concern for the powers-that-be was ensuring the tour generated a mammoth dollop of cash – the spectacle itself wasn’t even considered.

Would any self-respecting sports neutral tune into the current series and think to themselves that rugby was a game worth investing time in?

Thankfully, the Springboks’ win means next weekend’s match won’t be a dead-rubber affair, but it likely means we’ll be subjected to the same conservative rugby for a third laborious week.

It’s a sad state of affairs when much of the excitement to do with the final clash will have nothing to do with the actual rugby played on the pitch, however, and all to do with the final result – and which coach puts their foot in their mouth ahead of the deciding game.

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The Springboks' win over the Lions was a dire promotion for rugby

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