Postmortem - British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021

South Africa won by two Test Games to one

Before the dust has fully settled on what, in the end, was a close fought Series, let’s reflect on the Tour as a whole and the two teams involved. This was after all the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa that nearly didn’t happen. There was speculation about its re-locating to Britain & Ireland or elsewhere, there were questions about whether it should be postponed and overriding this all was the real threat the Covid19 posed to all involved. However, in the end, it went ahead and both long time rugby fans and those newer to this sport, can now look back and be thankful that it did. It was a captivating series. There was so much at stake for both sides, that it would have been a shame had it not happened. Both sides were affected by Covid outbreaks, schedules were changed, locations moved and last-minute replacements made, but Rugby was definitely the winner.

The organisation behind the scenes, the player’s willingness to sacrifice so much, to live in bubbles, to ensure that these games went ahead is a huge testament to all that were involved. I for one spent the build-up and the “four” Test games glued to the action on the day and nervous in the build-up to the main Test games.

South Africa won two of three tests and the “A” game against the Lions, and in the end showed why they are currently the World Cup holders, Rugby Championship holders. They now face the challenge of moving straight into another Rugby Championship, the round-robin of games between South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, with each side playing each other home and away.

There were “Rassie Rants” after the Boks narrowly lost the first test, but he wasn’t alone in the “mind games” stakes! Hopefully what will be remembered more is the ferocity of the Rugby played and despite possibly having a limited game plan, the way that South Africa just wouldn’t lie down and executed their game plan.

It will be interesting to see how they get on in the Rugby Championship under the “new” rules, especially the 50:22 law, which means that if a player kicks the ball from their own half and it bounces into touch within the opposition’s 22, then the attacking team will receive a lineout. Woe betides any side that doesn’t execute that well, as it could give the likes of Cheslin Kolbe all the space he needs, and we all know what he’s capable of.

So, what made the difference? South Africa had not played as a Nation for almost twenty months and whilst most of their players had been playing some premiership or similar they were thought to be undercooked. Questions were asked as to whether they were Test Match fit? You only had to look at some of their players at the end of the first test to see how exhausted they were. However, you don’t become World Champions without knowing how to play to your strengths. The second test showed just this as the Boks slowed the game down, put the ball in the air, played to set-piece strengths, and gave the Lions no chance for real momentum or pace. Twenty-one unanswered points in the second half is pretty emphatic and put momentum firmly in their favour.

In the third test, the South African's showed that they could live with pace coming at them. Their defence was rock solid and in a twinkle of an eye that man Kolbe showed how dangerous off loose ball they can be. Once again they managed to slow the Lions’ momentum down and force themselves in front to hang on with two minutes to go when Morne Steyn kicked the match and series-winning penalty.

There are several candidates in my mind for South Africa’s player of the Series: They include Faf de Klerk, despite not playing in the third test, Handre Pollard, who steered the ship so well, Eben Etzebeth, who was a world-class enforcer, Siya Kolisi, their Captain and Cheslin Kolbe, who just dazzled given half a yard of space. But I want to give it someone who maybe didn’t grab all the headlines, he Captained South Africa “A” side to victory, lead the defensive organisation for the Boks in all three tests and in the tackle he made in the first few minutes of the first test, showed the Lions just how physical and aggressive South Africa’s intentions were. My South African player of the Series is Lukhanyo Am.

What of the Lions, surely four versus one should be an advantage, the best players from four Nations brought together to play one, that should make them formidable? History however shows how difficult it has been for the Lions to win in South Africa, in fact, the last time the Series went to decider was in 1955!! It’s not as simple as it may sound.

These players are often playing for the first time together in different combinations and they were also living “inside a bubble”. Josh Adam’s wife gave birth to their first child whilst he was away, it’s a massive honour to play for the Lions, but it was a massive sacrifice!

How did they fare, who stood up when needed?

The first test did have its controversial moments and maybe the Lions were lucky on a couple of calls, but the outline of their game plan was there and whilst they struggled to fully implement it, they managed to get that all-important first Test game win. Maro Itoje’s two turnovers in the last ten minutes probably saved the day.

The second test was simply taken away from them in the second half, as mentioned previously and they lost out on almost all 50/50 balls, in the air and at set-pieces, as well as in the collision areas. Harsh lessons learned and in making six changes to his Team, Warren Gatland, the Lions Head Coach, was obviously looking for something different for the winner takes all final game. He certainly got this, but probably not in the way he expected, as Dan Biggar who had been the fly-half of choice in both previous tests was injured after eleven minutes of play & replaced by Finn Russell. Russell then proceeded to have a fantastic game, he brought pace into the backline, fizzing passes to other players, creating space out wide, using subtle off-loads to forwards in tight spaces looking to cross the gain line and kicking 100% of his penalty/conversion kicks!!

You must wonder if the Lions had “gambled” a bit sooner and maybe given others an opportunity who might have added similar flair, what the outcome would have been, but in the end, it was not to be, and three points separated the two sides at full time, giving South Africa the Series win.

It’s interesting to note that the Lions team on the pitch for the majority of the final game had combinations of fellow countrymen in some key positions: Welsh Prop & Hooker, Scottish Scrum & Fly half, Irish Centres, Welsh Wing & full back and after various replacements at the final scrum there were seven Englishmen in the pack. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from this going forward.

As with South Africa, there are a number of players who are in consideration for my Lions player of the Series: Dan Biggar, who played well throughout, Duhan Van De Merwe, started all three Tests, Ali Price, was excellent when starting, Maro Itoje, was “world-class” at times and of course Alun Wyn-Jones for his Captaincy and amazing return to Tour from injury. However, as with South Africa, I wanted to give this to a bit of an unsung hero, he was probably not on most pundits starting Team, but he ended up 1st choice and started in all three tests at number 8. He never took a step back, worked tirelessly, carried more times than any other player, made the most yards and was right up there on the tackle count. My Lions player of the Series is Jack Conan.

The British & Irish Lions legacy is as strong as ever, possibly even more so now as hopefully fans will be able to attend the next series in Australia in 2025. The demand for this will be enormous and there are rumours that 50,000 plus will try to go!! Imagine the Roar that many fans will make as they chant Lions, Lions, Lions.

There’s plenty of Rugby between now and then as more immediately England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales move toward the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations competition and South Africa have the daunting task of defending their Rugby Championship title against Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.

The Lions is and will always remain a very special group of players, it’s the one squad, the one shirt that all four nations strive to be awarded, it’s very special and is steeped in history and expectation, long may it continue and I for one can’t wait for 2025.

Come on the Lions!!

Author: Giles S

Editor: James G

Note of thanks: This a note to say thank you to both Giles and Adrian for all their hard work over the last month writing articles on the Lions Tour for 50plus. They have helped me understand the game better and I hope they've helped you. Thanks Guys JamesG

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