In an ideal world, the British & Irish Lions would beat the Springboks playing the sort of expansive rugby that put the South African provincial franchises to the sword earlier in this tour.
No one wants to unleash the Lions more than Warren Gatland but alas for their head coach, Cape Town Stadium will not play host to such a spectacle in this Saturday’s third and final Test because playing the Springboks there is no license to thrill.
That the Lions have not fired their best shot or shown their true potential in this Test series as the cream of the talent available in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, is as frustrating for Gatland as it is for the legion of supporters confined to their home countries on this Covid-era tour.
Just one try from a driving maul finished by Luke Cowan-Dickie in the opening rubber 11 days ago is all the Springboks have allowed the tourists as their defensive prowess and clinical eye for making the most of their opportunities has been the difference so far.
The Lions head coach does not believe Jacques Nienaber’s team of world champions are under any obligation to shift their approach if it means abandoning their ability to win Test matches the way they do with remarkable efficiency and effectiveness.
“I don’t think they care, I just think they want to win,” Gatland said in an online media session with travelling rugby writers in Cape Town. “It’s the thing about international rugby, I always say there’s no in-between, it’s agony or ecstasy. Often it’s not about how you play, it’s just about the result at the end of the day.
“We’re in a cup final at the moment and we want to play with some tempo and play some rugby but we’ve also got to be smart in terms of doing that. If they’re going to kick the ball as much as they do and try and scrummage and drive lineouts and slow the game down then sometimes you’ve just got to weather that and you’ve got to just wait for those opportunities. Or sometimes you’ve just got to get into a little bit of the same sort of battle and wait until you get the right bounce of the ball or the right chance to take your opportunity.”
So unless there is some remarkable sea-change between now and Saturday evening, it will just not be possible to release the shackles without dire consequences and that, Gatland believes, is an indicator of where the don’t-lose-at-all-costs international game is right now.
“I think some of those lead-up games, we played some really good rugby. It is just a bit frustrating because you want to go out there and keep the ball but often with those sorts of things you need both teams to be on the same page in terms of that.
“The example is where the international game is at the moment.
“We saw how South Africa won the World Cup, and they won the World Cup through their kicking game. And, in 2019 during that whole year, the only team that they lost to in 2019 were the All Blacks and the All Blacks kicked more than South Africa. Every other team that they played and won they kicked more than the opposition so that’s kind of where the game is at the moment.
“It is about territory and kicking in and putting kick pressure on, not playing too much rugby.
“They don’t want lots of phases at breakdowns because every breakdown is a 12 per chance of a turnover. You get to the next phase, it’s a 24 per cent chance and the next phase is a 36 per cent chance.
“Those are the sorts of things and stats people are looking at and you’re just limiting the percentages.
“And if you are South Africa and you have got physical men, who can scrummage and can maul and defend well and have their kicking strategy then they are a hard team to knock over and probably the one team that’s got the ability to really unlock them with the players that they have is probably the All Blacks.
“Everyone else who plays against them, you are in a tight battle and an arm wrestle.”
Gatland will try his hardest to impress upon the match officials in the Lions’ pre-Test meeting with France’s Mathieu Raynal and his team, the need to avoid a repeat of the 63-minute first half and 53-minute second period that managed to rustle up just 31 minutes of ball-in-play time in a game disrupted by flare-ups between the teams, TMO referrals and, in the Lions’ view, Springbok time-wasting.
“We definitely want to go out there… we talk to the referee and talk about keeping the game and the flow of the game going and getting some tempo and hopefully creating some chances and potentially tiring them out when they make changes and trying to exploit the chances that we get given for us and making sure that we are more clinical.”