Gerry Thornley: Lions brand will survive SA tour – but not many more like it

Few of the legacies of the tour to South Africa will have been the result of the actual rugby played

 Rassie Erasmus: his regrettable intervention via an hour-long video rant should be punished by World Rugby. Photograph: Rodge Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Rassie Erasmus: his regrettable intervention via an hour-long video rant should be punished by World Rugby. Photograph: Rodge Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

 

In the last 12 months, and against all manner of odds and expectations, rugby in the northern hemisphere has managed to complete two Six Nations championships, an Autumn Nations Cup, two Heineken Champions Cups, two Pro14s and, eh, as a bonus the Rainbow Cup, as well as two Premierships and a Top 14.

The sport mightn’t get much credit for this, but it has proved resilient and resourceful, and this has certainly applied to the British & Irish Lions and the Springboks. As with the Tokyo Olympics, somehow they managed to complete the tour and Test series.

This was probably both for the better and the worse. The tour did at least provide a financial lifeline for the South African Rugby Union and by extension the Springboks. Perhaps Rassie Erasmus will one day express his gratitude but, then again, any such words would ring hollow.

Such has been the polarising effect of his hour-long video rant that he will be hailed forever as a genius in his own country. Like his supporters, Erasmus won’t care one jot for the damage done to the game, not least in the ensuing two hours and 15-minute long second Test when the officials spent over 14 minutes discussing video referrals.

Winning was all that mattered and their sense of entitlement was only enhanced by the Springboks’ World Cup success.

World Rugby’s campaign against high hits and taking players out in the air was also temporarily abandoned as, it seemed, the lack of any citings bar an unfounded allegation of biting against Kyle Sinckler was an attempt to back those beleaguered match officials.

But in order to protect match officials from similar public critiques in the future, handing Erasmus a touchline or stadium ban for the forthcoming Rugby Championship would send out a strong message.

As damningly, few of the legacies of this tour will have been the result of the actual rugby. Save for Finn Russell’s transformative arrival last Saturday and Cheslin Kolbe underlining why he is the possibly the best match-winning winger in the world, there wasn’t much to have kids running into their back garden trying to mimic what they’d just seen.

World Rugby have introduced a raft of law changes but this series has also highlighted the need to go further, specifically in relation to the blatant and boring stop-the-clock tactics employed by the Boks, whether it be treatment to injuries, changing studs, taping up boots or whatever.

Better viewing

These ‘time-outs’ have been employed for donkey’s years, but match officials should be empowered to have the players in each of those instances removed from the pitch, ala football. That would soon put a stop to much of it.

Penalising crooked feeds again at scrum time would help, so too stopping the match clock for setting and resetting scrums, which in turn would stop teams winding the clock down and not pressurise referees into giving questionable penalties.

As has been underlined in the last year and a half, sports weren’t meant to be played without fans. One only had to behold the inspirational effect crowds had on players in Euro 2020, and it’s not the fault of the coaches or the players that the stadiums were empty.

But nothing that unfolded over the last six weeks in South Africa dispels the view that the board of the British & Irish Lions missed a trick by not moving the tour to the UK and Ireland. Played out in front of crowds, the rugby would certainly have been better viewing.

Winning isn’t everything. A Lions tour is meant to showcase the sport and leave way more positive memories than this one did, as it has done in preceding tours and as have plenty of games this year, witness the seven-try meeting between the All Blacks and the Wallabies last Saturday.

Yet had Liam Williams given that pass or Tom Curry not become detached for that Lions maul, one ventures the reviews wouldn’t be quite so critical. For starters, then it would have been three-Test series unbeaten, but now it’s one series win in the last six, with the drawn series against the All Blacks (probably the best result of all) four years ago now belonging to those not won as opposed to those not lost.

For sure both the Lions players and coaches will have a few large-sized pebbles under their beach towels this summer.

There were selection errors in both the original squad and in the Test series. In the absence of a Henry Slade or Garry Ringrose, the Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw partnership looked the best available yet was only picked in the third Test, thereby also underlining the original error.

Stuart Hogg was picked despite not being in form, witness Rob Baxter putting him on the bench for Exeter’s Premiership semi-final and final.

Hindsight is, of course, 20-20 vision and much of the post-match debate has focused on whether Russell should have started the third Test, and perhaps even the second as well. Yet he had been sidelined for over a fortnight with a slightly torn Achilles. Very few, if any, pundits were suggesting Russell should have started before the second or third Tests. Indeed, much of the debate last week had highlighted the absence of Owen Farrell from the ‘23’.

Better preparation

If not much else, the Lions have kept the show on the road and will be back in Australia in four years’ time. But even with full stadiums a tour will need better preparation time for all the squad and more meaningful warm-up matches against Australian franchises with their Wallabies’ players.

The British & Irish Lions, forever under attack, may be something of an anachronism, but therein lies the uniqueness of the concept; the very best of four bitter rivals coming together, and the four being Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales of all countries, to play together once every four years against the best teams from New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.

If it was devised now no one – least of all the Premiership club owners – would dare let it happen. But that is what makes it so special. The brand will survive this tour, but one or two more like this and it might not.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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