12 years of waiting all came down to this. With the 2021 Test series between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions level at 1-1, both teams knew that Saturday’s result would decide the series. Both teams came in with changes made, though it was a forced change for the World Champions, with both Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit out injured, while Duane Vermeulen was also still missing despite returning to the squad this week.
That experience missing from the Springbok back row was soon felt as Jasper Wiese was penalised for being offside following a knock-on just minutes into the game, but Dan Biggar missed off the tee. The Lions looked to be trying to play more rugby than in the previous Tests, but were struggling to find a way to break through the green wall in the early minutes, however when the hosts chose to play the ball through the hands they immediately put the tourists under pressure, and though the tourists just about kept up their defence through the phases, it came at the cost of 3 points through the boot of Handré Pollard and also saw Dan Biggar helped off the pitch, with Finn Russell coming on for his first Lions Test cap. It had been 5 weeks since the Scottish fly half played a game of rugby, but he immediately looked at home and the Lions looked better for having him there, causing the South African defence issues, while he was also on target with his opening kick off the tee to level the scores after Steven Kitshoff was penalised for collapsing the scrum. The Lions pack clearly felt they were gaining dominance over the hosts, and when they next had a penalty in the South African half, Russell turned down the 3 points and gave his pack a lineout just 5m from the line. A quick front ball to Maro Itoje allowed the tourists to set the maul, and after some patient grinding, they eventually got the push on to let Ken Owens drop over the line for the opening try. The Boks looked like they were struggling to match their opponents, but were let off just before the half hour as Liam Williams was released down the right wing. With just 1 defender ahead of him and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover in behind, the Welsh fullback failed to pass to Josh Adams and instead took contact to end one for the best chances of scoring we saw in the whole tour. If there was any worry that this could be a costly mistake, things got even worse just before the break as Wyn Jones—who had been causing no end of issues at the scrum for Frans Malherbe—spent a few minutes receiving treatment before going straight to a scrum, where Malherbe took advantage of his discomfort to win a penalty that Pollard duly kicked to cut the lead at the break to 6-10.
Just minutes into the second half, Jones again found himself penalised in the scrum and was replaced, clearly not feeling comfortable after his injury. South Africa put themselves into the Lions half and repeatedly battered away at their defence, but they struggled to find a way through and Pollard missed 2 kickable penalties. As the clock ticked towards the hour, the breakthrough came for South Africa. Everybody failed to collect Ali Price’s high ball, but it was eventually cleaned up by Lukhanyo Am, who quickly played the ball off to Willie le Roux, who had come on the loop to attack the blind 15m channel that had been left empty by Duhan van der Merwe contesting the high ball. Le Roux broke down the wing with support on either side and duly drew the last man to release Cheslin Kolbe, who evaded the desperate tackles of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Liam Williams to score and put the Boks ahead, Pollard adding the extras. The Lions were soon level through the boot of Finn Russell after he was hit late by Wiese. With Pollard misfiring off the tee and the game still close with 15 minutes left, Jacques Nienaber made a big call, taking off the fly half and bringing on 37-year-old Morné Steyn for his first Test cap in 5 years. With only his second touch of the ball, Steyn had put the Boks back ahead, striking over a penalty after the Lions collapsed a driving maul. And then with 10 minutes left, came the crucial moment. After a Lions lineout 5m from the South African try line was immediately sacked, the tourists went through a series of pick and go carries before Mao Vunipola drove over the line, however the replacement prop was unable to get the ball down, and Trevor Nyakane won a penalty at the resultant scrum to allow the hosts to clear their lines. The Lions soon found an equaliser through Russell’s boot, after a break from Robbie Henshaw ended in Am coming in from the side to play Conor Murray. With just minutes left and the scores still level, discipline was key, and it was the hosts who profited as the Lions gave away a kickable penalty with just 2 minutes remaining. 12 years ago, Morné Steyn’s long-range penalty at the death won the second Test to secure the series, and once again the fly half’s aim proved true as he bisected the posts to give the Boks a late lead. There was still time for the restart though, and when the Lions were awarded a scrum in a good attacking position with just seconds left on the clock, there was a glimmer of hope. However, the Springbok pack put the pressure on and won the penalty, which Steyn duly kicked out to end the game in a 19-16 victory and secure the series 2-1.
When you look back on this match with honesty, you realise that while the scrum fell apart in the second half and the lineout wasn’t a guaranteed thing, the Lions should have still won this game, but threw it away.
On 4 separate occasions, the Lions turned down the option of 3 points and instead kicked for the corner. Of these 4 occasions, only 1 saw them come away with any points: Ken Owens’ try. Just 7 points from 4 visits to the 22 already doesn’t look good, but realising that each time they had possession deep in the 22 makes it even worse. To make things even worse, one of these 3 occasions, the Lions were in a strong position, with the maul once again moving towards the line only for Tom Curry to stupidly detach from the maul and then come back in on Siya Kolisi from the side in an attempt to stop him pulling off into a defensive position as the maul wheeled around. Another saw Eben Etzebeth steal the ball just ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, while the final one saw the maul sacked and then Mako Vunipola having far too high a body position as he drove over the line, allowing the defence to get below him and hold him up, while at this point the Springbok scrum was gaining dominance.
But without a doubt the biggest wasted chance came from the selfishness of Liam Williams. The Welsh fullback was released down the right wing under penalty advantage with Josh Adams outside him, with just one defender between them and the line, and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover. It was the most basic 2v1 drill you could imagine, all Williams had to do was draw his man and pass the ball to Adams to give the wing the simplest of run-ins and extend the lead at a time when the Lions were causing the Boks real problems. And yet for some reason, Williams chose to hold onto the ball and try beating the man, unsurprisingly being tackled and ending the chance.
I have seen some people argue that Williams shouldn’t be criticised for backing himself, but that was the most basic of plays, any professional rugby player—let alone an experienced international back like him—should be making the right call and feeding his support man. This was probably the best chance created in the entirety of the Test series, and Williams blew it. But while this was the worst example, it was juts yet another chance missed by a Lions team that had shown very little inkling to play attacking rugby before this Test. When you play so negatively, it takes time to change your mindset when the gameplan becomes more positive. Maybe if Warren Gatland had tried to play rugby in the previous Tests, the Lions would have been more prepared to finish the chances they were creating.
It wasn’t just the Lions’ inability to finish their chances that caught my eye in this game, as there was also another tactical decision they made that could have proved costly, and that was not having blockers in place to the side of the rucks when the scrum halves were kicking.
Now personally, I hate seeing caterpillar rucks and these blockers to the side of the breakdown, as it makes it impossible for a defender to legally do anything to put pressure on the scrum half; but while they are legal it seems stupid to not use them when box kicking regularly.
By having those blockers to the side of the ruck, it just gives the 9 that extra bit of space and time to get the kick away. We even saw in this Test one moment where Ali Price—who does have somewhat of a history of having kicks charged down at Test level—saw his attempted box kick charged down. Especially in this match against the Springboks, with behemoths like Etzebeth, de Jager and Mostert looking to disrupt, having that man in place would have given a bit of extra safety for the 9s.
Luckily for the Lions, they escaped relatively unscathed in this regard, otherwise things could have been even worse for them.
This may seem an odd question to ask after winning the World Cup and Lions Series, but are South Africa holding themselves back?
In Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, they have 2 of the best wings in the world, and yet the pair barely got any chance to attack during this tour. As with the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Springbok’s success came off their pack gaining dominance in the set piece, solid defence and the tactical kicking of the halfbacks putting them in opposition territory, where they can take advantage of the penalties they are winning to build up a lead off the tee.
But as a result of this, what we have seen is that they need to keep the tempo very stop-start to allow the forwards a chance to recover. When the Lions were able to up the tempo, such as in this game when Finn Russell started varying the attack, the Springboks looked in danger. Is it time for the World Champions to change their style?
They certainly have the quality of player. Willie le Roux works as an extra playmaker from 15, and while Handré Pollard is not always the most reliable in a more expansive game, he still has a range of passes and kicks. In the midfield, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am provide a great physical pairing, but do they have enough between them to play a more expansive game? Or would the team benefit from bringing Damian Willemse in at 12 to provide another playmaking option. Simply put, the wings need to get the ball in space more often, and some simple changes to the game plan to utilise more of the ball in hand would allow that.
Not only that, but would it benefit the pack? Malcolm Marx plays like an extra flanker, as does Kitshoff. Franco Mostert has an incredible engine, hence his ability to play 7 for the Boks. Spreading the ball more would also force a defence to spread wider, making the carries of Eben Etzebeth or Duane Vermeuelen (once back) even more effective. But what it would also do is improve the effectiveness of the Kwagga Smith. Much of the build-up to the first Test saw questions over whether Smith could cope at 8 as he is not as physically imposing as Vermeuelen. Well playing a more open game would play into the former 7s superstar’s hands as his dynamism would become more important.
Realistically though, we probably won’t see much of a change while the Boks remain so successful. But with the Rugby Championship about to start, the Boks could be in for a shock if their opponents refuse to play into their hands by playing the tight game the Lions did.