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RUGBYPASS+ The final push for the Lions

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The final push for the Lions

Time is a great healer, and when we look back on the 2021 Lions Series, it will be through a softer lens but right now, the goodwill and mutual respect between both sides feels like it’s been strained to the point of snapping.

Without the carnival atmosphere of 30,000 Lions fans and locals coming together for a rugby jamboree, all the focus has been on the rugby and two groups of Alpha males in a bio-secure bubble. To say the testosterone has been spilling over in both camps would be an understatement. The Silverbacks of the rugby world, Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmsus, have hardly lightened tensions, and have been playing a Machiavellian game of chess throughout the Series. 

While the spiky New Zealander has been using the traditional press to inveigle his message into the public consciousness, Erasmus, the irascible chief waterboy, has been dropping his loaded points on social media for pumped-up South African fans to feast on and vocally support. It’s a moot point whether his diatribe is based in fact or fiction.

Despite protestations of innocence from both sides, the one-upmanship has left a sour taste that has been compounded by rugby that has been difficult to love. Again, both parties prefer to paint their rivals as the guilty party in a Series that has produced only four tries.

Warren Gatland Rassie Erasmus
There is a mutual respect between Gatland and Erasmus but neither like losing (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As professional rugby coaches, you can be certain there will be no desire to apologise for a muscular, fractious, who-blinks-first style of attritional rugby on display, their remit is clear. They are judged on whether they win or lose but for a game battling for airtime in a heavily congested sports market where attention spans are waning, waiting for TMOs to deliberate over obscure and overly complex rulings is doing nothing for the rugby flirts who watch in their millions during the Six Nations, but go AWOL for the rest of the year. 

As ever, when the ‘product’ malfunctions, naysayers look for someone to blame. Is it Gregor Townsend’s fault that the Lions have failed to sparkle in attack? Is it Jacques Nienaber’s meticulous defensive planning that has firmly slammed the door shut on champagne rugby, or is it simply the players failing to follow best-laid plans with stodgy execution? 

Social media will be rife with hot-takes from experts in armchairs and you fear Liam Williams will suffer the same digital shoeing afforded to Stuart Hogg should he fail to deal with the wicked, snow-capped balls sure to rain down on him during the game.

Springboks assistant coach Mzwandile Stick was unrepentant about any lack of panache, saying the Lions were welcome to play touch rugby, but they would continue to play a winning brand of rugby, snail-pace or not. TMO delays, he shrugged, it’s not our problem.

Social media will be rife with hot-takes from experts in armchairs and you fear Liam Williams will suffer the same digital shoeing afforded to Stuart Hogg should he fail to deal with the wicked, snow-capped balls sure to rain down on him during the game. The trope that all four nations stand shoulder to shoulder and forget national rivalries has been well and truly laid to rest in the social media era. Some of the mud-slinging has been uncharitable at best, downright unkind at worst.

Lions backs
The Lions take their last photos at the Captain’s run (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The Springboks will be confident, but there will be traces of self-doubt. Even though they paraded their adamantine No 8, Duane Vermeulen earlier in the week, it was all for show, as he was not yet fit to enter the fray and with just two caps to his name, Jasper Wiese, will need some guidance from Siya Kolisi, who is missing his partner-in-crime, Pieter Steph du Toit. The towering backrow gets through the dirty work to allow others to shine and he will be sorely missed.

Another player who sets the emotional tempo for the reigning World Champions, is Faf de Klerk, and his absence could be keenly felt, especially if Cobus Reinach’s bombs are not as accurate as the pint-sized Sale mischief-maker.

If you were to surmise, South Africa are not at full-strength and a few key injuries could see their much-heralded self-belief waver during the game.

The Lions are on the back foot. Of that, there is no doubt. The challenge for Gatland is to banish a fear of failure, which is not easy when the spectre of Morne Steyn looms on the bench. The Series winner from 2009 will not have helped his sleeping patterns this week. The most successful Northern Hemisphere coach of the last two decades, knows a win will enhance his legacy, and that will be a powerful motivator.

Setting the standards at the coal face will be Alun Wyn Jones. Some mentioned dropping the Lions captain for the decider, and while there is no doubt he has miles on the clock and precious little preparation for the Series, his leadership is just too integral to the Lions.

Setting the standards at the coal face will be Alun Wyn Jones. Some mentioned dropping the Lions captain for the decider, and while there is no doubt he has miles on the clock and precious little preparation for the Series, his leadership is just too integral to the Lions. 

Without his calm voice to enter into dialogue with Mathieu Raynal, there is a danger the side wilt and wither under a ferocious Springbok onslaught, one from which they may not recover. Indeed, it seems eons ago that the Wales captain wallowing in celebratory confetti with Jamie Roberts in the aftermath of the Series win in Sydney in 2013.

Eight years on, that act looks almost frivolous, and the record cap holder has set a stern example this week. Deadpan, straight-bat answers are the order of the day. A canny old warhorse, he is desperate not to feed the hosts with further ammunition. Win and Jones can be afforded a wry smile.

Leadership and familiarity with Jones and the towering Beard on the bench is also the principal reason Ken Owens has been selected. This is very, very harsh on Jamie George, who has not played a single minute of the Test Series despite laudable form. 

From the clues given to us in selection, there are glimmers of hope a game of rugby breaks out. Courtney Lawes told Lions fans they were not prepared to get into a dog-fight with the Springboks and will look to speed up the game. 

Alun Wyn Jones
Alun Wyn Jones captained the Lions to a Series victory against the Wallabies in 2013 (Photo – Dave Rogers, Getty Images)

Certainly, by looking at the bench, ‘joue’ lies in the magicians hands of Finn Russell to the bench. If one of rugby’s great entertainers cannot put a smile on faces, then the game really is in the mire. Likwise, the jet-heeled Sam Simmonds will be hoping for Boks forwards to be blowing by the time he enters the fray to either accelerate around the fringes, or clamp on like a mollusc to a Lions driving maul to burrow over the whitewash.

It’s not all throwing caution to the wind, however, Bundee Aki has been brought into add ballast to a misfiring Lions midfield and Wyn Jones’ diesel tractor engine will be required to nullify the monstrous Frans Malherbe in the opening exchanges at the set-piece. 

After three Tests against the Boks – the A-game really was the World Cup winners in sheep’s clothing – the Lions know that best-laid plans can be laid to waste once they receive the metaphorical punch on the nose from the fired-up hosts but rest assured, while underdogs, the feted tourists are still in the fight.

We’ll know by 7pm whether they have landed the knockout blow or will be prone on the canvas.

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