The last time the Lions won a series decider they changed their captain and almost drove a vast congregation of Irish worshippers into voluntary excommunication as a consequence.
Brian O’Driscoll had been widely expected to borrow the armband from a hamstrung Sam Warburton for the finale against Australia in Sydney. Instead he found himself discarded from the team and the bench, with the captaincy passing to a prickly Welshman, Alun Wyn Jones.
Eight years after making heavy weather of beating the substandard Wallabies, Warren Gatland must now decide whether he is prepared to risk alienating the Welsh faithful by subjecting their colossus to the same ruthless treatment which finished O’Driscoll.
Anyone daring to suggest as much risks being condemned as a heretic but Jones has always been acutely aware that his status provides no immunity from the fate which did for his Irish predecessor as the world’s most-capped player.
“We don’t have a place for you,” Gatland is said to have told O’Driscoll.
Jones is about as safe as any captain of a team given a pasting severe enough to lose the second half 21-0. Never can the Springboks have raised their aerial game to more devastating height at sea-level, their jumpers operating at an altitude like eagles picking off their prey.
Nobody’s antennae has been more sensitively tuned to the needs of the Lions over the last 50 years than Ian McGeechan’s — the Scot launched the inquest by citing Jones’ department as an area of concern. “It needs freshening,” he said on Sky Sports. “ Second row. (Iain) Henderson being around there. The set-piece fell away. Momentum is with South Africa. The Lions have to get it back.”
Maro Itoje having made himself undroppable, that leaves only one locking position open to debate. At the very least, Ulster’s Henderson has to be on the bench, with Adam Beard, Jones’ Welsh partner, also in strong contention.
While it is no longer a matter of whether changes will be made but one of how many, Gatland and his coaches have to address the more serious issue of revising their strategy. Their addiction to kicking meant that almost every ball hoofed high came down as manna from heaven for the Boks.
More of the same next Saturday will be an exercise in futility.
Surely now the Lions have no option but to go for broke, to use some imagination which would be a welcome change because they have shown depressingly little hitherto.
Time, too, for Gatland to offer a tacit admission that some of his selections have been plain wrong, most notably at full back and on the left wing, where Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe have been found wanting, badly. For those of us baffled by the exclusion of Liam Williams and Josh Adams, no hindsight is required.
Having exhausted just about every conceivable centre pairing since arriving in South Africa, there is a case to be made now for the one they haven’t used since Japan at Murrayfield — reuniting Robbie Henshaw with his old Connacht sidekick, Bundee Aki.
Jones, numero uno before being laid low by an injury almost as regrettable as the one that scuppered Aidan Walsh’s shot at Olympic silver and gold in Tokyo, will be back at loosehead, if fit.
For the same to be said of Finn Russell will require infinitely more than a mundane fitness test. Picking the gifted but high-risk Scottish stand-off, or the mercurial Harlequin Marcus Smith who dares to go where angels fear to tread, will demand a leap of faith on Gatland’s part, one the New Zealander has been loathe to take.
The tourists’ almost subterranean level of creativity begs the question: What creativity? Two Tests, one try (from a lineout maul) and an obsession with kicking which explains why a high-class wing like Anthony Watson hardly gets the ball in his hands. The Lions have been outsmarted, most strikingly off the bench where nobody came remotely close to matching the thunderous impact of Lood de Jager and Malcolm Marx. If they can’t save the series, then at least come up with something different and give it a go…
So World Rugby is expected to charge Rassie Erasmus over his now notorious video rant but why stop there? At the end of a grim week, the sport’s governing body would be justified in issuing disrepute charges left, right, and centre.
As the agent provocateur in chief, the Springboks’ director of rugby-cum-waterboy heads a depressingly long queue over his unprecedented condemnation of Australian referee Nic Berry’s handling of the first Test.
“Has the game been brought into disrepute?’’ Alain Rolland, the 2007 World Cup final referee, asked in his newspaper column. “Absolutely. You can’t question Nic Berry’s character and integrity. It’s unacceptable.”
Hadn’t the Lions done much the same over Marius Jonker in expressing their anger at the former South African referee’s appointment as substitute TMO for Brendon Pickrell, stranded in his native New Zealand? No mention of that from Mr Rolland.
Boks’ assistant coach Mzwandile Stick weighed in with a swipe at the Lions’ management, claiming they had “destroyed the dignity of the series”. The players wasted no time piling in during a first half when the grand old game took a battering from every angle.
It took all of two minutes for the spite to start spewing and Ben O’Keeffe to summon both captains — “Alun, come here; Siya (Kolisi), come here” — for a dressing down. Surely, he would have made that clear before it all kicked- off?
The New Zealand referee deserves praise for his handling of a volcanic occasion which would have tried the patience of Luigi Scroscoppi, the patron saint of footballers of all codes. It was bad enough to drive any potential new converts to seek their kicks elsewhere.
How, for example, do you explain to a casual observer what is meant by grounding the ball when comparing Robbie Henshaw’s disallowed try before half-time with the one awarded to Lukhanyo Am?
O’Keeffe stuck to his guns on each occasion and again in sparing Cheslin Kolbe a red, thanks as much to Conor Murray’s safe landing as anything. Wisely, the Lions refused to make a song-and-dance about any of those decisions, aware that they got precisely what their non-performance merited: zilch.