Donal Lenihan: Lions loss will haunt Warren Gatland for a long time to come

What will prove the signature moment from this tour? What will 2021 be remembered for? Sadly, it may well be Rassie Erasmus’s 62-minute video rant that ultimately proved so influential. How sad is that?
Donal Lenihan: Lions loss will haunt Warren Gatland for a long time to come

Liam Williams dejected after the Lions lost to South Africa. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

All things being equal, Saturday’s deciding test match would have been played out in a full house of 94,736 fanatical Springbok and Lions fans at the FNB Stadium in Soweto — not only the venue for the 2010 Fifa World Cup final but the site of Nelson Mandela’s first speech in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

That would have been some climax to this tour.

Covid conspired to turn those best-laid plans into chaos and so instead, for the fifth consecutive game in a row, the Lions found themselves in the familiar setting and empty surroundings of Cape Town Stadium in their attempt to make a bit of sporting history of their own.

Whatever way you look at it, a modern-day Lions tour without fans isn’t the same. Not only do they offer a massive lift to the tourists, they also force the home support to match the occasion for colour, atmosphere, and raw passion.

If the absence of the fans has been the most regrettable off-field consequence of this pandemic-ravaged series, a lack of attacking flair, memorable tries, and iconic moments of genius, not to mention the massive financial hit taken in equal measure by the South African Union and the broader economy of this beautiful country, has been even more marked.

Brian O’Driscoll’s sensational try or the one delivered earlier in the same game by Jason Robinson in the first test will forever be associated with the 2001 tour to Australia. Likewise, Sean O’Brien’s mesmeric length-of-the-field try, inspired by Liam Williams in defeat in the first test, is undoubtedly the moment of the 2017 tour to New Zealand.

What will prove the signature moment from this tour? What will 2021 be remembered for? Sadly, it may well be Rassie Erasmus’s 62-minute video rant that ultimately proved so influential.

How sad is that?

That history repeated itself — a series decided, as it was 12 years ago in Loftus Versfeld, by Morne Steyn at 37 years of age in his first Springbok appearance since 2016, stepping up so nonchalantly at the death to deny the Lions — is the crullest form of irony.

Given all the obstacles that stood between the tour not only taking place but going the full distance, for the Lions to remain competitive right up to the final whistle was an achievement in itself. That said, Warren Gatland knows only too well that Lions tours are judged solely on the outcome of the series. His charges left this one behind them.

To win, the Lions had to do more than be sucked into an arm wrestle. Unfortunately that is exactly what happened, even if they tried valiantly to stress the Springboks by creating more width and playing out of the tackle more in this test than at any other time in the series.

That approach certainly worked in the opening half, aided in no uncertain terms by the early introduction of Finn Russell for the unfortunate Dan Bigger after 11 minutes. Russell played flat, attacked the ball, and brought his magical range of hand and kick passes to bear, resulting in the Lions dominating both territory and possession to a remarkable degree: 74% and 69%, respectively.

The problem was the Lions failed to make the most of that period of ascendancy, which was always likely to come back and bite them. For the second week in a row, they led at the break but a lead of four points was scant reward for their dominance.

The saddest indictment of the Lions’ attacking arsenal was not only the fact that they registered just two tries in the series but that they were both scored off driving mauls. Any attacking ambition they wanted to bring to the series appeared to evaporate from the moment Lukhanyo Am smashed Elliot Daly into oblivion three minutes into the opening test. That was certainly the case until Russell arrived on the scene.

They closed up shop and restricted themselves to toe-to-toe combat with South Africa, both in the set-piece and the kicking game. That was never going to be enough. New head coach Jacques Nienaber may have been overshadowed by Erasmus during this series, for all the wrong reasons, but the incredible influence he has brought to bear on their defensive structure and organisation was there once again for all to see.

Coming into this game, the Springboks had only conceded 12 tries in their last 15 internationals. Only New Zealand managed to score two tries against them and that was back in the opening game of the 2019 World Cup.

Try as they might the Lions, lineout maul aside, just couldn’t find a way to cross the whitewash.

Conscious of the empty feeling that surrounded the drawn series against New Zealand four years ago, they even passed up the opportunity to draw level with a penalty on 68 minutes, opting instead to go for the corner once again.

This was their moment but Mako Vunipola was agonisingly held up over the line, just as Robbie Henshaw had been before the break in the second test. From the subsequent scrum, South Africa won a penalty and the emotional energy generated from that one moment, propelled them forward over the closing straight. The Lions won a lifeline with a Russell penalty, his fourth from four and a reversal on that previous decision to tie the sides at 16-16 with just five minutes to play.

Just like the changes you see soccer coaches make in extra time to get more penalty takers on the field for a potential shootout, Nienaber played his get-out-of-jail card when withdrawing Handre Pollard, who missed two crucial second half kicks, for Steyn with 16 minutes to go in the likelihood that one penalty opportunity could be the deciding factor. How right he was.

Losing a series in such a crucifying manner is hard to take at the best of times. Given the circumstances, the bio bubble restrictions and alien nature of this one-off tour, it must be even more difficult for the Lions squad to accept this defeat. These Springboks were there for the taking.

That will haunt this Lions party for a long time to come.

As a group, the players and management deserve immense credit for the way they coped and adapted with everything thrown at them. What the coaching team have to ponder is the uncertainty shown in selection and the lack of any detectable attacking plan.

Gatland has always been his own man when it comes to selection but on this tour he appeared somewhat compromised. Perhaps, given he hadn’t worked with the likes of Steve Tandy and Gregor Townsend before, it appeared as if selection was more by consensus. As a result, there was no real pattern in some areas with the composition of the back line a moveable feast.

What was clear for all to see was the difference Russell made when he was thrown in at the deep end in this test. It was said that you can’t play flat on the gain line against this swarming Springbok defence, but Russell made a fair fist of it and played the likes of Henshaw, Josh Adams, Duran van der Merwe, and Liam Williams into the game for the first time.

On the front foot, the forwards were offloading out of the tackle, running into space and getting in behind that well-oiled Springbok defence. What might have transpired had the Lions sought to play this way from the outset of the series or if they capitalised on their dominance before half time to put meaningful distance between the teams.

South Africa were on the ropes and down to the bare bones up front due to injury. When Lood de Jager had to leave the field at the same time, he came off the bench to turn the second test their way, a path opened up for the Lions to seize the moment and make history.

Unusually, the Lions carried a number of competitive advantages into a deciding test in South Africa — a full squad to pick from compared to the hosts and no test at altitude throughout the series — but weren’t good enough to take their opportunities and close the deal. Once again the Lions return home with nothing but regrets to show for their admirable efforts.

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