There's an interesting verb, to constrict, usually employed in the description of how certain snakes suffocate their prey. Each time the suffering victim exhales, gasping for life, the remorseless snake squeezes tighter again, applying pressure, pressing the life from its prey.
You may know where I am going with this.
It hasn’t been a Lions tour to excite or stimulate. No realistic analysis can set aside the artificial environment in which the games are taking place; it has meant the unfortunate exclusion of fans and the attendant palaver they create and noise they bring.
But more worrying is the dearth of inventiveness and quality on the field of play.
Every major cross-hemisphere tournament or series invariably provides food for thought on the evolution of the game (think Japan in 2019), but the meeting of the best of the northern hemisphere (supposedly) and the world champions, has been nothing short of a damp squib and poor nourishment for those seeking new horizons. Rassie Erasmus has been the man of the series. What more can one say?
This hasn’t been all the doing of the British & Irish Lions and if they win today’s decisive third Test by three penalties to nil, the style council will be dismissed in no uncertain terms. Substance over style, my friend. It’s all about the W.
Nevertheless, the tourists’ Test match selections have been unpredictable, even eccentric at times and one is moved to suggest — even as a lowly club coach who has never had to put a Lions Test team on the field — that in terms of evolution, the fare on offer has been regrettably regressive.
As a simple comparison — and acknowledging that the All Blacks are a completely different proposition in so many aspects of the game — have we seen anything resembling progression since the corresponding Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017?
In assessing how the Springboks have approached the series, one has to temper expectation to some degree. This is what South Africa does. And they are the world champions doing it. Some of their players might ideally like to operate in a more expressive environment, but they’d always prefer to be in a winning one. And a fundamental part of the winning formula is their defensive structure.
In the Springboks’ last 10 Test matches, of which they’ve won eight, six have produced clean sheets in terms of no tries conceded.
In that 10-game sequence, not once have they conceded tries in consecutive games.
They have allowed one try in this Test series, to Luke Cowan-Dickie, and of the five they have conceded in their last 10 Tests only once — against the All Blacks in the World Cup pool game in Sept 2019 — did an opponent manage more than a single try.
The Lions will have to score more than one try in Cape Town today but there hasn’t been any trustworthy evidence that the Gatland/Townsend et al game plan is expressive or inventive enough to do that. The sum total of Dan Biggar’s pass count last Saturday was three — three! — which speaks to the emphasis Gatland and his management are placing on the pressure game. Handre Pollard, by the way, threw 14 passes in the second Test. And it certainly doesn’t sit well from this perspective that an emblematic figure like Owen Farrell is not involved in the decisive third Test.
We have lauded the talents of Finn Russell on these pages before but if the mercurial Scot is the answer, one can’t be too sure what the question should be. Displaying his array of tricks in the Top 14 is very different to the suffocating environment of a Lions test series in South Africa. If Gatland is sending for the Scot, then the Lions are relying on a late cavalry charge to rescue the series.
It’s either dancing ingenuity or desperate interception at that stage. Realistically if the Lions have the upper hand in what will inevitably be an arm wrestle, will Gatland turn to Russell to close out the day for the tourists?
There are five key questions or pinch points where the Lions must prosper to escape the clinch of the Springboks, to deny the world champions the chance to constrict.
Firstly, they must somehow get a vibrant performance out of Bigger and Ali Price that asks South Africa questions they haven’t readymade answers for. Do not for a moment think that the absence of Faf de Klerk weakens the Springbok creativity. If he is a superior box kicker than Cobus Reinach, the Montpellier nine is probably more proficient in all other aspects of the game. I rate him as one of the best six scrum-halves in the world and his Montpellier connection with Pollard will render the alteration seamless.
Secondly, can Lions stop South Africa’s maul and scrum? In doing so, they strike at the very core of what Springbok rugby is about. A South African penalty win off a scrum or maul infraction is a virtual rite of passage for the pack. Because of the conviction it provides, because of the endorsement it gives the individual player. A winning scrum, a dominant maul is putting you in parts of the pitch that give you strength, mental and physical, which only empowers the South African rugby player. Take that from them and the benefits are immediately palpable.
Similarly, the third key area, is the high ball. Winning the air against South Africa wins you the game. There will be in the region of 20 contestables in today’s match. Win more half of them, and you are there. It makes the decision to exclude Liam Williams last week one of the more eccentric elements of the Lions Test selections.
The Lions team looks primed to work the gain line. Choosing Bundee Aki, retaining van der Merwe. Excluding Anthony Watson. If claiming more than one try demands an enhanced level of invention by taking the Boks out of their comfort zone, we are going to see something that’s remained in the locker thus far. Finishing a Test series with one try — off a driving maul — is not a good look for the Lions and leads to a fourth question — have the Lions the wherewithal to score the necessary two tries in Cape Town?
Question five is related: Where is the creativity? Hopefully Williams and Josh Adams can light up the occasion but there’s an overwhelming sense that the tourists want to win the series in a ground war. Unfortunately, I don’t believe they will.
I didn’t want to let the final column of the season pass without welcoming the bold Donnacha Ryan to La Rochelle.
His appointment as assistant coach was formally confirmed yesterday. He will work with the forwards, but isn’t just a forwards coach. I don’t want to box lads into specific roles and that would only be counter-intuitive with a lad like Donnacha who thinks outside the box.
He also has a nice communication style, which is so important in this context. He can address an issue and change the direction of the conversation without making anyone feel threatened or undermined. He has signed on for three years which, oddly enough, is the same contract term as mine.
Regular readers of this article will recognise the traits I saw for myself in Donnacha, not just in Munster but when he came to France and joined us at Racing 92. He is possessed of three key qualities as a person: A strong work ethic, a diverse thinker and a very capable communicator. And his French isn’t too bad either.
He’ll do the finest…