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It was an exhilarating tour, played under trying circumstances and finished in heart-breaking fashion. Our Deputy Rugby Union Correspondent Daniel Schofield reflects on his takeaways...
1. The Boks don’t care
About being labelled boring, about accusations of dark arts or about trashing all notions of respect in the game. All they care about is winning. By any means necessary. History will show that they won the series 2-1 and if a referee was thrown under the bus then so be it. If you think any gibes about their playing style from Warren Gatland or Ian Foster are going to cause them to change a playing style that has won them a World Cup and Lions series then think again.
2. Rassie Erasmus has developed a full blown cult
When the video of Rassie Erasmus stomping Nic Berry into next year was released, he would have expected some blowback from outside South Africa. What was remarkable was that there was not a single word of condemnation either from his union, which laughably promoted a message of respect before the third Test, or from elsewhere in South Africa. If Erasmus released another video proclaiming the sun rose in the west, you would expect most South Africans to buy it. Privately, Telegraph Sport has spoken to South African coaches who did not agree with what Erasmus did but none dared echo those sentiments publicly.
3. Brendon Pickerill’s travel agent has a lot to answer for
His absence for “Covid-19 related travel reasons” meant Marius Jonker, a South African, was the Television Match Official for the Test series. The Lions voiced concerns that World Rugby had no contingency plan for the second biggest event outside the World Cup. And then all hell broke loose.
4. World Rugby fell asleep at the wheel
Coaches have always sniped and moaned about referees but what Erasmus did was effectively a public execution of one of World Rugby’s elite officials. A decisive, strong punishment – a stadium ban for a year – was needed to demonstrate the importance of respect for officials. Erasmus forfeited the right to any due process. Instead World Rugby sat on their hands for a couple of days, their attention taken up by the Tokyo Olympics, and Erasmus escaped sanction during the series. What is to stop other coaches performing similar hit jobs on referees in the World Cup knowing they can face the music a long time later?
5. Erasmus is a director of rugby - not a water boy
Yes assistant coaches are used to run messages on to the field, but Erasmus does far more than that, screaming at his players and ensuring he is in the eyeline of the officials as an intimidating presence. Moreover rugby players would be much better off if they would allowed to think for themselves rather than being fed instructions every five minutes.
6. A life in politics awaits the Springboks boss
If there was a vote tomorrow he might well get elected South African president, but on this tour he revealed his true colours and they were not pretty.
Thanks. This is rugby - sometimes calls go for you and other times they dont https://t.co/ONZp0uoWJF
— Rassie Erasmus (@RassieRugby) July 25, 2021
7. Don’t make Siya Kolisi mad
Whatever the reality, Kolisi says he felt disrespected by Berry in the first Test. Come the second Test, he ran on to the field screaming so loud it could be heard high up in the stands above the pre-match music. He proceeded to pull off a wondrous try-saving tackles on Robbie Henshaw and came up with several match-defining turnovers in both the second and third Tests.
8. Gatland was wrong to leave Marler at home
Not only was he the standout scrummager in the Premiership, you could make a case that he was the most influential player in the league. Gatland picked Marler once before in New Zealand and is understood to have had reservations about how he would cope in the Lions’ Covid-19 bubble. However in his absence and that of Wyn Jones for all bar 50 minutes of the Test series, the Springboks ruthlessly targeted the loosehead side.
Watch: Lower body workout
9. The first tackle really means the most
Am came screaming out of the backfield early in the first Test to smash Daly well behind the gainline as the Lions sought to spread the play. Lesson learnt, the Lions kept it tight for the rest of the series. At least until Finn Russell entered the fray.
10. All rugby games should be broadcast in Xhosa
If you can catch SuperSport’s Xhosa commentary of that Am tackle on Daly, you will listen to it at least 20 times.
11. One man doesn’t make a team - or does it?
What would the Lions have done with a fit and firing Manu Tuilagi? This is the same question successive England coaches have asked themselves too, not just for his ability to break the first tackle but for the amount of attention that he draws from a defence. That was a weapon the Lions sorely lacked.
12. Damian De Allende was my player of the series
It should probably go to the Springbok front row, but De Allende was consistently excellent over the course of the series. As a ball carrier, he seemed to always get over the gainline and his defensive partnership with Am was a large reason the Lions attack never got going. Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert were also totems.
13. There was no Lions breakout star
Normally, a Lions series creates household names. Think of George North in 2013 or Maro Itoje in 2017. Itoje was probably the Lions’ best performer on this trip alongside Courtney Lawes and Robbie Henshaw, but none truly elevated their reputations into a new stratosphere.
14. But oh what could have been…
That said, Finn Russell did more to elevate the excitement levels of the series than any other player after coming on as a replacement in the third Test. You can highlight his skills, but more than anything it was a mindset. Russell betrayed no fear of failure. He took chances. He tried things. That is the rugby you play on a park on a kid and it is the rugby that this series so sorely needed.
15. Marcus Smith is going to give Eddie Jones a mighty problem
Even in defeat, Gatland could not resist making a jibe that he would “definitely be playing international rugby” if he wasn’t English. Attack coach Gregor Townsend says Smith and Russell are the future of the sport. “They have be runners and very, very good passers and also have an attacking kicking game that can unlock defences,” said Townsend. Does this make Owen Farrell and George Ford, yesterday’s men? We will find out come the autumn.
16. Townsend’s attacking credentials are under the microscope
A return of two tries in the Test series, both scored by a hooker from rolling mauls, is an appalling return for Townsend as attack coach. You can point to plenty of chances missed and tries held up, but for a back not to have scored a try in a Test leaves a black mark against Townsend’s name. Given Scotland play such an enterprising brand of rugby, you have to wonder whether there was a disconnect between Gatland and Townsend’s visions.
17. We need to crack down on time-wasters
Townsend is completely right that any minor injury should be treated off the pitch as in football rather than running the clock on the field. For a team that builds itself as the hard men of international rugby, the Springboks spent an awful lot of time rolling around on the floor. Willie Le Roux, especially, was bordering on Neymar-esque levels of exaggerated contact.
18. Kolbe’s talents are being wasted
Imagine how sensational Cheslin Kolbe would be in a team that actually passed him the ball. Instead the little genius has to feed of the scraps of high balls, but even then he finds a way.
19. De Klerk remains rugby’s biggest wind-up merchant
He should really give a TED Talk about how to get under the skin of men twice your size without being squashed like a bug.
20. A new entry at No 1 as rugby’s loudest man: Bundee Aki
Simply incredible. Makes Owen Farrell seem like a door mouse. Being high up in the stands, he provided a one-man commentary for the entire third Test.
21. Warm-up thrashings are pointless
Statement of the bleeding obvious but there is nothing to be gained from 50 point thrashings in warm-up games. It does not prepare the team for Test matches, gives the coaches very little insight into the way of selection and provides no interest for spectators. While there were extenuating circumstances on this tour, it cannot be allowed to happen again.
Watch: Core workout
22. Iain Henderson was the unluckiest Lion
The most unlucky Lion was Iain Henderson, who acquitted himself well in the warm-up games but did not play a minute of Test rugby. Again he was a victim of the soft opposition. Similarly Jamie George and Josh Navidi should count themselves unlucky to have been passed over. Louis Rees-Zammit’s time will surely come in four years against Australia.
23. A Premiership club needs to sign Werner Koch
The Sharks wing was the most eye-catching performer the Lions faced in the warm-ups, not least for his Faf De Klerk like hair. He also boasts a sevens pedigree similar to Cheslin Kolbe’s. His speed and footwork would light up the Premiership.
24. Be careful drinking with Irish scrum halves
Very early in the tour, I visited John Robbie, the former Ireland and Lions scrum half, at his Johannesburg home in which he has built his own beautiful pub. Of course the interview was conducted there and beer started to flow well before midday. By the time Getty photographer Dave Rogers rescued me some time after 7pm, I was not in a good way. This led to the expression of getting “John Robbied”.
25. Booze bans don't stop people drinking
Despite an alcohol-sale ban for the bulk of the tour, the British and Irish press pack suffered an awful lot of hangovers. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that so many interviews were organised with players’ families who happened to own vineyards. Coincidentally during the booze ban, the codeword for illicit alcohol was “AppleTiser”. Without fail, this never worked for us, even in the places that were serving beer.
26. Lifting of ban still cause for celebration
Remember the wonderfully heartwarming video of Tom Dean’s family and friends celebrating his Olympic gold medal? Well even more emotive scenes occurred on the evening of July 25 in Room 306 of the Raddison Blu where Her Majesty’s Press corps gathered to hear President Cyril Ramaphosa lift the alcohol ban. There was not a dry eye in the room.
27. Always check the mute button
Very nervous moments for some travelling journalists when in a taxi ride back from a warm-up match, the party began trashing the reputation of a well-known rugby executive. This went on for a good five minutes before someone back home alerted us to the fact we were broadcasting our character assassination on a Zoom press conference.
28. Double check who you are interviewing
A personal journalistic low was when I was given a number for Schalk Burger, whom I wanted to speak to about his vineyard, the state of South African rugby and the 2009 series. It was only 20 minutes into the conversation that I realised I was interviewing Schalk Burger senior, who also played for the Boks and runs the vineyard, rather than the 09 Burger vintage.
29. Never distract a Springbok from his Braai
My colleague, Gavin Mairs, later went to interview Schalk Senior and produced a marvellous piece on why he is releasing a wine to raise money for Doddie Weir. He also laid on some excellent hospitality, although got so engaged in conversation that the steaks he was cooking got rather charred, much to his wife’s annoyance.
30. Buy your partner a proper present if you've travelled for ages
A chopping board is not considered a sufficient present by your partner when you have been away from home for six weeks – whether or not you consider it more practical than jewellery. An emergency trip to the Cape Town shopping mall was required.
31. Cape Town is the greatest city in the world
What’s not to love? Some of the best restaurants in the world, wineries around every corner, the views from Table Mountain, running along the sea front to Camps Bay, the ocean. It should be the top of every Lions fan’s bucket list.
32. But the emptiness was a tragic sight
Probably the saddest element of the tour was that all those restaurants and wineries were practically empty. It is not just the host union that profits from a Lions tour but the wider country itself and if every a country needed the injection of 40,000 beer-thirsty, steak-hungry Lions fans it was South Africa. It is to the rugby authorities’ eternal shame that the tour was not put back a year to allow this to happen.
33. Our thoughts must remain with Levan Maisashvili
The Georgian head coach is still in hospital in South Africa having contracted Covid-19 around the time of their match against the Springboks. Everyone involved in this series was risking their health. Unfortunately Maisashvili remains very ill. His sacrifice should not be forgotten.