Donal Lenihan: Lions pay for calamitous selection error and setpiece collapse

Warren Gatland has a lot to ponder between now and next weekend
Donal Lenihan: Lions pay for calamitous selection error and setpiece collapse

South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi touches down for a try in Saturday’s second Test against the Lions in Cape Town. Picture: EJ Langner/Getty Images

After one of the most fractious and indisciplined halves of rugby that I have seen for some time, I prayed for the Lions to take us out of our misery and capture a series win that appeared well within their grasp at the break.

That opening period was characterised by a complete lack of continuity, zero tempo, and a horrible undercurrent following the unprecedented attacks by South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus on Australian referee Nic Berry during the week. That, coupled with the claim from the Springbok camp that Warren Gatland had destroyed the dignity of the series by questioning the appointment of a former South African referee as TMO — an allegation he denies — has drastically changed the mood around these games.

Erasmus is a very canny individual. He doesn’t do anything by accident or without thinking through the consequences of his actions. If all that video nonsense was a ruse by him to take the heat off his players and shift the focus elsewhere, then he may well feel the fallout that may yet come his way will be worth it. If it was designed to foster the age-old Afrikaans laager or siege mentality, then it worked to perfection.

Not that anyone saw that coming at the interval. Leading by three points — a 12-point turnaround from where they sat at that point in the first test and a margin which could have been even more had Robbie Henshaw managed to ground the ball under the Springbok posts on 33 minutes — you felt the series was there for the taking for the Lions.

What transpired over the course of the second 40 minutes was the stuff of nightmares for the tourists as the Springboks not only wrestled the momentum but seized the psychological high ground heading into the series decider back in Cape Town Stadium next Saturday.

Nowhere was the magnitude of the second-half collapse highlighted more than the scoreboard in that timeframe, a resounding 21-0 to the hosts. If Gatland deservedly took the plaudits after the first test for the tactical changes he implemented at the break to achieve the win, then Jacques Nienaber and presumably Erasmus, the most notorious water carrier in international rugby, are entitled to feel extremely satisfied with both their tactical and personnel alterations.

The single biggest influence in the second half was the introduction of Lood de Jäger off the bench to bolster their flailing lineout coupled with the simultaneous decision to shift the second row Franco Mostert to the backrow and withdraw No 8 Jasper Weise.

That decision had two immediate impacts. If reinstated the extra lineout target they lost when the towering Pieter-Steph du Toit, 2019 World Rugby player of the year, had to go off injured after 21 minutes and it also gave them a rock-solid receiver in De Jäger to dominate in the air off restarts.

Without Du Toit, South Africa lost both their lineouts in the second quarter and the Lions were making hay. The tourists produced a tactical masterclass in the first test when only offering the Springboks four lineouts over the entire game. Without that platform to play off, they couldn’t get their maul going and couldn’t generate penalties off that go forward, as they so often do, from that source.

Once the Springboks got their lineout going, everything flowed from that. De Jäger was masterful when he came on and the shift of Mostert, who has played there in Super Rugby with the Gauteng Lions in the past, helped shore up a backrow that was all at sea.

The pendulum really started to shift when the Lions’ discipline fell apart, conceding 15 penalties in total, compared to 8 in the first test. That enabled South Africa kick to touch and, with eight lineouts in the second half alone, they finally got the opportunity to launch their powerful maul to suck the life out of the Lions forwards.

The final nail in the coffin came with the dismantlement of the Lions scrum in the final quarter. Once a Springbok pack smells blood and senses any semblance of weakness, they go for the kill.

On the back foot for the entire second half, the Lions responded by kicking deep for territory only for the aerial bombs to be returned with interest. In that key battle, the Springboks also reigned supreme with Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe badly exposed with the usually reliable Anthony Watson also suffering the jitters.

If Gatland got away with the decision to omit Liam Williams from the starting side in the first test, he paid a big price for it this time round. The fact that he wasn’t even on the bench to shore things up was a calamitous error.

I’ll be amazed if Williams doesn’t start next week’s decider.

The Springboks were clever in the way they constantly broke up the momentum of the game, with players going down injured at strategic times, to the utter frustration of the Lions. It reminded me of Munster Senior Cup matches from a bygone era.

If the Lions expected to take their opponents out of their aerobic comfort zone in that final quarter, they never generated sufficient possession to do so.

The game was so stop-start, not helped by the interminable time it took for some of the TMO review sessions to be conducted, the Springboks had no issue going the full distance.

Gatland has a lot to ponder between now and next weekend. This is where he’ll really get to earn his corn. His biggest concerns surround the complete collapse of the setpiece and the manner with which the Lions’ back three failed to deal with South Africa’s superior kicking game.

Changes to the starting side are inevitable but the biggest debate between the coaching team has to surround a change in their tactical approach. While everyone accepts that you have to match the Springboks in the physical battle, there is no requirement to play the exact same way as them.

Gregor Townsend has to design a plan to create more attacking opportunities with ball in hand. In addition to Williams, a proven finisher of the quality of Josh Adams has to come back into the equation.

To facilitate that, the midfield also needs tweaking with a shift of Robbie Henshaw to outside centre with Bundee Aki or Owen Farrell coming into the equation inside him. If Finn Russell is fit, his capacity to add a bit of creativity off the bench must also come under consideration. Otherwise, what was the point in selecting him in the first place?

All of that will be irrelevant unless the Lions sort out the setpiece. Hopefully Wyn Jones, an original selection at loosehead prop, will have recovered from injury to bolster the scrum while Jamie George also comes into the debate.

The fact that the hosts have now had two big hit-outs on successive weekends, after so long in the international wilderness, will also put them in a better position to complete the job next Saturday.

That said, much will depend on the availability of Du Toit and Faf de Klerk, both of whom left the field with injuries. To lose both of them would be a massive blow for the hosts. In respect of Du Toit, South Africa may well have an ace up their sleeve.

A strong rumour had being circulating here all week that if they managed to level the series, World Cup-winning No 8 Duane Vermeulen was being primed for a dramatic return to action, after a long term ankle injury, to attempt for South Africa what Alun Wyn Jones’s miraculous return for the opening test achieved for the Lions. That story became fact on Sunday with Nienaber confirming: “Duane will join us on Sunday and will be medically assessed as soon as possible. We will never risk a player who is not 100% fit but he brings experience to the squad and it will be great to have him with us.”

As for Erasmus, World Rugby can’t sit on the fence once again after his actions in his online outburst last week. With the potential for citings hanging over Kyle Sinckler, it promises to be a highly eventful week, perhaps even more entertaining than the action on the field.

Then again, that wouldn’t be hard.

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