Following South Africa’s 19-16 victory over the British and Irish Lions last Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Cape Town.
The top line
The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa finally ended with a defeat for the visitors in the final throes of another brutal encounter.
With one side looking to play fast rugby and the other looking to suffocate and smother, it was a clash of styles and only a penalty separated the sides at the end, but both teams can be immensely proud of their contributions to a fascinating series.
Morne Steyn repeated his 2009 feat when he slotted a 79th minute penalty to take the game away from the tourists, as indiscipline cost the Lions dearly in the second half, as South Africa again managed to slow the match down to walking pace.
But there were moments to cherish from the first half as Finn Russell orchestrated some lovely moves, but in the final analysis that wasn’t quite enough to seal the series win the Lions probably deserved.
Cheslin Kolbe is a match winner and yet again, he was the player that broke the deadlock. Competition in the air was a key talking point in the game, and the turning point came when Jasper Wiese managed to scramble an up and under into the arms of Lukhanyo Am, who released the superb Willie le Roux who timed his pass to perfection to allow Kolbe to sprint through the flailing arms of Liam Williams and scoot over the line.
Yes, the aerial challenge should have been better and Williams will rue his feeble attempt to chase the flying wing down, but many world class players have been skinned by Kolbe and the Lions full-back became yet another in that long list.
It’s fitting that Kolbe was the man that turned the series as he really is something of a special player.
The difference between the first half and the second half was tempo, pure and simple. The faster the game was, the more chances the Lions had. The slower it was, the more the Springboks gained ascendancy.
The Lions were simply magnificent in the first half, with Russell igniting a lot of high quality rugby once he replaced Dan Biggar. The Lions gained pretty much parity in the first half in all aspects of the set-piece and with Courtney Lawes and Ken Owens putting in big statements, they were the better of the two teams.
But yet again, in the second half, the Springboks managed to deconstruct the game into its simplest forms – slow set-piece rumbles and aerial bombs. The Lions struggled to cope again with the aerial battles and it was their mistakes that opened the comeback up for the Springboks, as catches were spilled at the back, stupid penalties were conceded in every part of the pitch and Steyn came on to do the rest.
This will be a series the Lions will look back on with incredible frustration. In three halves of rugby, they were the better side, yet in the other three, South Africa were superior.
It is a tour of what should have been; selections were at times confusing, tactics were mixed and unclear and it took them until the third Test, inspired by Russell, that the backline looked anything like functional.
It’s the end of an era for the Lions – Alun Wyn Jones walked off at 66 minutes for the very last time (we assume!) and others such as the Lions’ best player of the series, Lawes, Owens, Conor Murray and a few others will never wear the red of the Lions again.
Warren Gatland will also, in all probability, take his exit stage left. He was the man who put the Lions back on track after the disasters of 2009, 2005 and 2001 and he will be remembered as one of the best Lions coaches.
But despite the frustrations of covid, bubbles and controversy, the tour kept going. It was a mammoth effort for all involved and one that although strange, kept us on the edge of our seats until the last minute.
South Africa are world champions for a reason – they hate losing. They had superior teamship, deeper power and at times, greater emotional intensity than the Lions could manage, led by an inspirational captain in Siya Kolisi, who plays with grace, pride and dignity.
They start their defence of their title with a series win against the Lions, something they’ll cherish in name, without worrying too much about the manner it was obtained.
But for some, the gamesmanship of Rassie Erasmus, his open erosion of the culture of the game, will take some of the gloss off the Springbok win. Nobody wants to see 60 minute halves of rugby, littered with coaches disguised as water carriers, slowing the game down to a standstill.
The Boks are now at a watershed – they have an amazing team but now some older players will move on and the new breed will take their places.The game is in a great place in South Africa and they’ll take this series win and its momentum into the Rugby Championship where it will be interesting to see how they fare against the other giants of the Southern Hemisphere. – Planet Rugby