So far it’s taken several hours to get over the cumulative effect of several pints in tropical heat – now a literal and metaphorical storm – and the most disappointing rugby game I think I’ve ever seen. Well, to be truthful, the game itself wasn’t a disappointment. In fact, it has a claim, alongside the 2003 World Cup final and last week’s Test, to be one of the best games of rugby I’ve ever seen. It’s still difficult to admit that it was a game of two halves, that South Africa offered at least as much as the tourists. Could it have been otherwise?
The first half was so perfect. To be 10-0 up was all the Lions could have asked for in the first ten minutes, and a healthy return on their one-man advantage. Lots of journalists will call for Schalk Burger’s blood, and indeed, there is a curious logic to sin-binning him for an offence that will certainly carry a suspension, probably for the Tri-Nations. However, in a way, it was an offence that did not leave a large mark on the game. Some blood was bound to boil over with stakes this high, and for the most part, it was to the detriment of South Africa, as the Lions soaked up the pressure.
The way the Lions drove the ball over the game-line and kept possession in the loose was sensational. Everyone was constantly looking to offload – if Gethin Jenkins had successfully, the game could have played out differently. Try as they might, South Africa just could not push Simon Shaw backwards. In the wider-context of this series, perhaps the most important result is that the myth that the Southern Hemisphere has a monopoly on skillful rugby.
Over the course of the eighty-minutes, South Africa may have missed three penalties, but they outscored the Lions by three tries to one. There’s two sides to that statistic. The most obvious is that the Springboks cutting-edge was much sharper this week. JP Pietersen took a sublime line on his way to their first-half score and Bryan Habana’s pace was finally of some use. Moreover, as Stuart Barnes said (insightfully for once), he’s so dangerous without the ball.
Jacques Fourie’s was controversial but the less obvious point when the Lions were making so many yards was that they were incapable of finding the line – the most significant turn-around from last week. Therein lay the secret of South Africa’s success. Last week they showed the physical intensity of their game. This week, their backs were the difference.
Injuries took a huge toll on the Lions. In five minutes (64-68), they lost Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts – the very spine of their team. O’Driscoll had not had his best game, trying to force the pass too often, but in the tackle and most crucially in organising the defensive line he would have left the Lions below par.
The loss of Roberts, without announcement due to injury, was equally tragic. Without him there was no one to take the ball forward outside the forwards, which even if the Lions had been in the ascendancy would have deprived them of their bite.
Of Pride and Men
Where does this leave us? Some will talk of scrapping the Lions as an institution altogether after seven consecutive Test defeats. That would be a huge mistake, depriving us of the kind of phenomenal rugby we’ve just witnessed. Moreover, the British and Irish Lions are an advert for the game in the Northern Hemisphere and an opportunity for the best players of the Home Nations to mix and learn from each other.
The trouble with this tour is that for so many players it will be their last. That makes the chances of them taking their newfound passion and technique back with them much slimmer. On the other hand, most of the coaches will and their role in making what was so nearly a dream team out this group of talented individuals could hardly be overplayed.
These brave Lions have fallen just the wrong side of immortality. However, if Northern Hemisphere rugby emerges the stronger, it will not be in vain.