Heart Of A World Champion
In a Cape Town cauldron of chaos and carnage, the Springboks’ character and class shone through. For a team who hadn’t played together in 19 months due to the pandemic and then only having one official Test, against Tier 2 Georgia, to prepare for the series to beat the best England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland have to offer is truly remarkable.
To do so under the most stressful of circumstances, coming back after suffering a 22-17 loss in the opening Test, speaks volumes of the character of this special group of Springboks, whose physical and mental toughness, tightknit nature, tactical nous and depth saw them add a British & Irish series win to their World Cup triumph in Japan in 2019.
After bouncing back to win the do-or-die second Test 27-9, Siya Kolisi admitted it had been the most difficult week of his trail-blazing tenure as Springbok captain. Winning the Webb Ellis Cup as underdogs is a great achievement, but staring down the barrel of a series defeat on home soil, a once-in-lifetime occasion – unless you’re Morne Steyn – that’s unprecedented pressure.
To rise to the occasion on successive Saturdays, fighting back after trailing at half-time on both occasions and eking out a nail-biting 19-16 win in an epic decider at the weekend is the stuff of legend. How apropos that with series honours hanging in the balance, it took one last collective effort from the men in Green and Gold – a mighty shove inside their half – to win a scrum penalty in the final play of the game to power to the sweetest of victories.
Lions Brought The Fight
It takes two to tango and while the heartache will burn for years to come, the British & Irish Lions can hold their heads up high for pushing the world champion Springboks to the absolute brink. The Northern Hemisphere all-stars fought fire with fire and beat South Africa at their own game in the series opener.
They showed character in their own right to rebound from the mauling in the second Test and come within a hair’s breadth of getting over the line. In the heat of battle, there were a few unsavoury incidents, but after each brutal battle respect was shown through handshakes and guards of honour.
They may have fallen just short in the end, the Springbok Bomb Squad having just too much firepower for them in the latter stages, but Alun Wyn Jones and company did the British & Irish Lions legacy proud.
Kolbe Stands Tall In The End
“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
That’s the question with which hip hop iconic Eminem started ‘Lose Yourself,’ one of the most popular songs in modern rap and the title track of the Hollywood blockbuster, “8 Mile.”
The chorus goes, “You better lose yourself, in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”
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It’s almost a carbon copy of his World Cup final try as Cheslin Kolbe dances his way to the tryline! Springboks take the lead ???
? Stream live on SS Rugby: https://t.co/0BMWdeEYT3
? Follow the match centre: https://t.co/etAx9d2RyD pic.twitter.com/MHTJP4CBAk
— SuperSport ? (@SuperSportTV)
It’s the perfect soundtrack for the heroics of a British & Irish Lion-taming Cheslin Kolbe, who did the hard yards and took hard knocks all series long, biding his time for that one opportunity and when it came, he majestically seized the moment.
The Springboks’ ultimate opportunist had a ton to when he was finally fed the ball in the decider and in vintage fashion, the pint-sized virtuoso stepped Liam Williams and fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie to score a stunning try that gave the hosts the lead for the first time and helped inspire the epic win.
In doing so, he posterised the aforementioned pair like he did England captain Owen Farrell when he scored that classic try that wrapped up a third World Cup title for South Africa in the 2019 final, proved once again that he’s one of the best players in the world and added to his giant-slaying legacy as he scooped the Man of the Match award.
If it were a movie, you would’ve said it was too far-fetched. Yet, in a real-life fairy-tale for one of Springbok rugby’s all-time greats, Steyn did exactly what he did 12 years earlier as he came on off the bench and coolly slotted the decisive penalty in a British & Irish Lions series at the weekend.
What. A. Story.
Morné Steyn ?#RSAvBIL #BoksvLions pic.twitter.com/RP6dEIt2fx
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag)
Only this time, he did so in his first Test since 2016 and scarred the psyches of a new generation of British & Irish Lions and supporters. The 78th-minute penalty goal was an unbelievable moment for the man, the coaching team who brought him into the matchday 23 for exactly such a clutch case, and the country.
The Finn Factor
Hindsight is 20/20 and while he’ll never admit it, deep down Warren Gatland will wrestle with thoughts of whether he should’ve back Finn Russell at flyhalf from the opening Test. The Scottish supernova replaced Dan Biggar, who was solid if not spectacular in the No.10 jersey throughout the series, when the Welshman limped off 11 minutes into the decider and changed the complexion of the contest.
Thrown into the mix early on, how impressive was @finn_russell yesterday ?
Dictating tempo, starting attacks and precision kicking, it was a tasty performance from White Chocolate ⚪️?#LionsRugby #CastleLionsSeries #BoksvLions pic.twitter.com/QdzQTk2RCJ
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial)
The mercurial playmaker awoke the beast within the British & Irish Lions, quickening the pace and giving them an attacking edge they’d lacked all series. Russell’s energy and enterprise caused South Africa all sorts of problems and raced the tourists into a 10-3 lead, plus he was composure personified off the tee, slotting all of his kicks at goal.
Considering he hadn’t played any rugby since the second match of the tour against the Sharks, it was a special showcase of skill and big match temperament from the Scot.
Vermeulen Sorely Missed
That Duane Vermeulen’s an integral part of the Springbok team isn’t lost on anyone, but his injury-enforced absence from the series highlighted just how invaluable the iconic eighthman is in the national set-up.
He’s been highly influential throughout his career, however, he ascended to legendary status in recent years as the grizzled hard man of the Springbok pack, his crowning moment coming on the grandest stage when he produced a Man of the Match performance in the World Cup final.
A consistent force of nature, Vermeulen is all but without flaw – a complete conqueror. However, where he was missed the most was as the dependable and unmovable rock under box kicks. The tourists capitalised on this in the opening encounter, where Ali Price’s precision found Kwagga Smith wanting and played a pivotal role as they drew first blood.
The bigger and stronger Jasper Wiese stood up better in this department for the remainder of the series and did a commendable job overall for a greenhorn playing in just his second and third Tests. However, his inexperience cost the Springboks at times and this facet of play remained a vulnerability. There’s only one Vermeulen and it’s a real shame he missed the series.
War Of Words Shake Up World Rugby Status Quo
What started as good old-fashioned banter escalated into an unprecedented sideshow centred on match officials and their performances. Gatland’s cheeky swipe at SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ water boy role was the type of quality barb that adds spice to a rivalry.
However, the British & Irish Lions coach opened a can of worms when he headed into forbidden territory by raising objections to South African Marius Jonker’s appointment as TMO for the series as stand-in for New Zealander Brendon Pickerill, who couldn’t travel due to Covid restrictions. The tourists would go on to enjoy the rub of the green when it came to 50/50 calls in the first Test and came out on top.
Erasmus, in true South African fashion, said hold my beer and countered with an hour-long video in which he highlighted errors and inconsistencies on the part of Australian referee, Nic Berry. It broke the internet. On one side, it elevated Erasmus’ already legendary stature to even higher esteem in the eyes of South African supporters, while in other circles, it hurt the 2019 World Cup-winning coach’s legacy.
Bravery? A disregard of World Rugby protocols? Both, but Erasmus’ willingness to sacrifice himself if need be had the desired effect of “levelling the playing field” in the second Test, which turned into a marathon of a match as New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe and company combed through every significant incident like detectives at a crime scene. The end result was a commanding 18-point series-levelling win for the hosts.
In the bigger scheme of things, the game needed an elite voice to finally shed light on World Rugby issues that had gone unspoken for the longest time due to fear of repercussion. Erasmus, in taking up that mantle, along with SA Rugby look set to pay a hefty price at an independent misconduct hearing.
However, they have the support of South African-born Marco Masotti, who’s a partner in a leading US law firm and heads up MVM Holding, which owns a majority stake in the Sharks franchise, should they wish to “put World Rugby on trial” as Masotti put it.
The deck is stacked against them and even though it’s unlikely, hopefully, “Rassiegate” leads to positive lasting change in some form or another.
Best Of A Bad Situation
Fortunately, the series itself sidestepped Covid chaos from a personnel point of view, thanks in large part to the decision to stage all three Tests in Cape Town instead of holding two-thirds of the series in Gauteng as initially planned due to the delta variant of the virus being rife in the region.
However, it would be remiss not to mention the damning impact Covid had on the tour. Spectators from both sides of the pond collectively form the beating heart of the tour and while it was a shame the roaring Red Army and passionate Springbok supporters couldn’t attend matches, it looked at times as if the tour was destined to descend into a farce.
Many British media outlets would have you believe that it did. Only those within the bio bubbles will know how dire the situation truly was and if it ever reached the point where conversations of cancelling the tour were had. I’ll leave that for documentary crews to reveal.
It unquestionably, though, spoiled much of the provincial portion of the tour with rising numbers of positive cases in the touring party and franchise teams consistently threatening match cancellations. Cruelly, that twist of fate befell the Bulls as they lost their opportunity to face the famous tourists.
The match against Jake White’s charges at Loftus Versfeld was the most anticipated of the provincial fixtures given their status as South Africa’s dual domestic champions and the fact that the Pretoria team looked to replicate the heroics of the British & Irish Lion-taming generation of 1997. The Sharks went from the risk of their clash being called off if eleventh-hour tests compounded matters to the unique honour of facing the men in Red in White in back-to-back matches as they replaced the virus-hit Bulls.
The enlarged 46 Springbok squad that had to be selected due to Covid protocols had already weakened provincial teams, so with positive tests further diluting them, they were duly no match for the invaders, whose depth, class and fitness came through and whose adaptability deserves to be applauded as Gatland had to overhaul his team at the last minute on more than one occasion.
The only positive of the disrupted tour schedule is that we got an unofficial fourth Test in which a Springbok team starved of international rugby handed the British & Irish Lions their first loss of the tour in the guise of South Africa ‘A’.
In the end, with no details of possible incompetence in terms of upholding Covid protocols, SA Rugby seemingly made the best of a bad situation when it came to the tour matches that preceded the series.