The last week on any tour is challenging at the best of times. It’s seven weeks now since the bones of the Lions squad assembled for their pre-tour camp in Jersey without any guarantee that the tour would go the full distance.
The outbreak of Covid in both camps, the cancellation of the game against the Blue Bulls, and the unusual scenario of having to play the Sharks twice in four days has tested the mental fortitude of the squad like no other. To their credit, they faced those hurdles and negotiated them without undue difficulty.
That mental toughness is set to be challenged once again, this time with issues more familiar in nature.
The last week of any tour is particularly difficult for players who haven’t seen action for a few weeks.
Players like Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill, Jamie George, and Josh Navidi, all of whom have performed well, must be hurting this week with the fact that the Test series will have passed them by without any game time.
The feeling of emptiness that accompanied the final whistle last Saturday, given the squad were within 40 minutes of capturing a famous series win, is difficult to describe. Everyone was crestfallen. Outside of selection, Warren Gatland’s biggest challenge this week was in creating a positive environment by delivering a blueprint capable of convincing the players they can still win this series.
Jacque Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus face similar issues.
So much emotional energy was expended in an incredible second-half performance last Saturday to enable the series go to a decider that the Springboks management must be concerned about being able to reproduce that level of emotional energy again so soon.
On top of that, Nienaber has to deal with the psychological blow of losing two of his most influential players in Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
The opening quarter will tell a lot in terms of which camp hit the balance right mentally in the final straight.
Watching the series from a distance, at home in New Zealand, former Lions coach Graham Henry captured the challenge for the current squad aptly when he said: “If the Lions want to win, they’ve got to play.”
The problem with that is, to date, the Lions have failed miserably in their efforts to develop a multi-phase game capable of beating the Springboks blitz defense. They haven’t even attempted to play.
No power plays off set piece, no grubber kicks into the space immediately behind the on-rushing three quarters, no risky skip passes designed to get outside the Springbok wingers, despite the fact that they defend very narrow and let the 15 metre channels tantalisingly exposed.
Nobody is claiming it’s easy but, at the very least, the Lions need to test the waters. One of the most telling stats to emerge from the second game was the fact that Lions out-half Dan Bigger only passed the ball three times. That is astonishing. What chance had the likes of Robbie Henshaw to influence the game?
Gatland knows better than most that a different approach is required this time if you want to achieve a different outcome.
The first part of the plan is to get selection right. While staying with the core of the team that will now start all three Tests, nine in total including the entire back five of the scrum, Gatland has finally sought to address the shortcomings elsewhere. The most glaring is in the back three who, as a collective, failed miserably to cope with the aerial pressure imposed.
The decision to start Liam Williams and Josh Adams is long overdue.
Bundee Aki was involved in all five tour games prior to the first Test but has been left lingering on the sideline since. He is now tasked with matching the physicality Damien de Allende has delivered in both games for South Africa while also seeking to play his former Connacht midfield partner Henshaw into the game a bit more.
The bench has also been primed to make a series-changing impact with three new additions in Finn Russell, Sam Simmons, and Adam Beard also asked to carry out very specific roles. Russell has the X factor. That is why he was picked in the squad in the first place. Now is the time to see if he can possibly deliver something magical.
Simmons brings explosive pace and an impressive try-scoring reputation, even if he’s found it difficult to replicate his Exeter club form at this level. Beard has one job, to lead the defence against the Springbok maul in the final quarter.
Tadhg Beirne has been the sacrificial lamb to facilitate the latter two changes which seems very harsh given the impact he’s made on tour.
Gatland will be acutely aware that all these changes will be meaningless unless the Lions manage to lift the pace and intensity of the game. That’s where the officials must play their part.
Anyone watching the second Test on television could have made a cup of tea and a toasted sandwich any time the officials gathered together in conclave to review any one of the many incidents referred to the TMO last weekend. In a two-hour marathon, 20 minutes alone was consumed by those referrals. Ridiculous.
This has to stop. From the Lions’ perspective, they want to play at a high tempo and raise the ball in time play, at the very least, to over 34 minutes. Last week it was a measly 30 minutes 25 seconds.
Gatland may also be concerned that today’s decider will be refereed by Mathieu Raynal. French officials adopt a far more simplistic approach when it comes to refereeing the scrum in particular. They decide early who is on top, where the power is coming from, and tend to reward that.
For that reason alone, the Lions need to start positively from a scrummage perspective and paint a good picture for Raynal. They will be hoping that the return to full fitness of first choice loosehead prop Wyn Jones will help solidify those early engagements. He is up against the mountainous Frans Malherbe, the third different Lions loosehead tasked with taming him.
Raynal has to be far stricter when it comes to the time-wasting antics perpetrated by the Springboks in breaking up the game. Eben Etzebeth was the biggest culprit last week when sitting on his backside for minutes at a time, staring at the sole of his boot, complaining about a problem with his studs.
Ben O’Keeffe let him away with it, despite issuing warnings. The referee has to restart play. I’m sure Etzebeth wouldn’t be long getting to his feet if the lineout was formed and the Lions are ready to deliver.
In a game as tight as this is likely to be, the team that generates the big momentum shifters usually prevails.
Just think back to the first game and the capital the Lions made from the failure of Kwagga Smith to field a restart early in the second half which led directly to a penalty for the Lions. Minutes later they have a momentum-shifting try off a maul and the course of the game changed dramatically.
With so little rugby being played by either side, those psychological boosters have tended to come from mistakes rather than any creative genius from either team. If the Lions are to win, they must seek to generate those moments, not only by exerting pressure without the ball, but by being creative with it. Hence the reason Russell and Simmons find themselves on the bench for the first time.
Momentum also comes from the ability to dominate in the air.
Last weekend’s kicking stats highlighted forcibly just how much more effective South Africa were in that department. Their kicks proved far more contestable, reclaiming possession on 22 occasions compared to 10 for the Lions.
That is massive in terms of controlling field position. With Williams back in harness, the tourists will be hoping for a big improvement on that front.
The ultimate in momentum shifters tend to come from acts of ill-discipline, resulting in cards being issued. In 2017, the entire series against New Zealand turned dramatically on a red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams before half-time in the second Test.
The Lions have had an uninterrupted week to digest their second half failings from last weekend and need to deliver their most polished performance of the tour to create history today. The entire success of this troubled campaign has come down to this. We are about to find out where this group feature in the pantheon of great Lions tourists.