Matt Williams: Lions and Springboks have done rugby a grave disservice

The rugby on offer has been ugly and the off the field behaviour uglier still in South Africa

The players fight after a challenge on Lions scrumhalf Conor Murray by Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa during the second  Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The players fight after a challenge on Lions scrumhalf Conor Murray by Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa during the second Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

For the first time in history two giant rugby rivalries will be played on the same day as the Lions play the Springboks in Cape Town and New Zealand take on Australia in Auckland.

Eden Park is a Wallaby graveyard. The Australians have only won there in 1949 and 1986. On form, talent and home ground advantage New Zealand are red hot favourites.

Despite the overwhelming burden of history, there is hope in Australian rugby. Decades of “muddle headed wombat” administrative leadership dropped the Wallabies to the bottom of an exceptionally deep hole.

Yet rugby people are resilient. The fire of Covid was purging. Now quality people have put their shoulder to the wheel to develop the excellent talent Australia’s under-18s and under-20s have produced.

These young players are not yet mature enough for success in a Wallaby jersey, so Eden Park will not be a happy place for the men in gold, but there are better days ahead.

Another reason for hope in Australia is that most of the provincial teams have finally cut the brain-dead coaching philosophy of copying New Zealander’s game plans and believing these strategies will succeed with Australian players. The local coaches are once again thinking more deeply about how to maximise their playing talent with original game plans and are rediscovering their tactical DNA. Australian rugby has begun to “fight the good fight”.

Regrettably, Warren Gatland has guided the Lions down the same dead-end path that the Australians took. The Lions game plan is failing because it is a copy of the Springboks.

For over 25 years the Springboks have mastered a game plan with a simple formula. Select a powerful punter who will kick the ball into the opposition half. Forge a dominant forward pack that will scrummage and maul their opponents off the park. Select a goal kicker with a success rate of 90 per cent plus. Then add a bucket of supreme physicality and bash anything not wearing a green jersey. A simple, negative, boring, yet highly effective strategy.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland talks to South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus ahead of the first Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Lions head coach Warren Gatland talks to South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus ahead of the first Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The current Lions game plan that consists solely of physicality and kicking, is trying and failing to “out Bok the Boks”. Without major tactical change, the Lions will fail in the third Test because the Springboks do the mindless physical stuff better than any other team in the world.

The British & Irish Lions

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The most staggering Lions statistic from the second Test is that Dan Bigger passed the ball a grand total of three times in 60 minutes. This is surely the lowest number of passes by any Test match outhalf.

Last week the Lions won a lineout in Springbok territory. In the following 10 phases, Bigger touched the ball once. He was tackled without passing. On phase 10 the Lions kicked the ball into touch for an eight-metre gain.

In the second Test, the Lions carried the ball 37 times and gained only 105 metres. They turned over possession 14 times and kicked in general play 23 times. Those are horrific statistics.

When the Lions squad was announced in May, I believed the non-selection of Garry Ringrose as a specialist outside centre was a tour threatening blunder. A key aspect of any attack attempting to get the ball to the outside channels where the Springboks are vulnerable, requires a highly-skilled, specialist 13.

Neither Elliot Daly or Chris Harris would make the Leinster team ahead of Ringrose at outside centre.

Robbie Henshaw is one of the only Lions backs who will finish this tour with his reputation enhanced. He is, without doubt, one of the best inside centres in the world. This week, because of the omission of Ringrose, he is forced to becomes the third Lions outside centre in three Tests. Need I say more about the wrongful omission of Ringrose.

While I am delighted for Bundee Aki, Abraham Lincoln’s advice of “Never weaken a strength, to strengthen a weakness” is ringing in my ear.

Regrettably on and off the field this tour has been toxic for rugby. Gatland and Rassie Erasmus were both highly disrespectful towards match officials and both need to publicly apologise.

The lack of leadership from World Rugby in not immediately sanctioning both Gatland and Erasmus was yet another example of our governing body being asleep at the wheel.

The game deserves far better from the Lions, the Springboks and World Rugby.

The jingoistic reporting by sections of the media has also added to the aggressive environment surrounding the tour. Much of the reporting has been about cheerleading their respective tribes rather than explaining the truths.

Note to the South African media. In the week prior to every Test match, content very similar to that in the Rassie Erasmus video is discussed, face to face, by matchday officials and the international coaches. In releasing that content to the public Rassie broke an almost sacred protocol surrounding respect for referees.

Note to northern hemisphere media. Lions Tests in South Africa have always been ultra physical. Lions mythology rightly rejoices in Willie John McBride’s team creating the “99” call to start a brawl. If you dish out of physicality you have to be prepared to take it. Stop kidding yourselves, the Lions chose physicality and have dished out plenty of rough play so they should expect to cop plenty back. Rugby is like motherhood. It’s not for wimps.

The deciding Test does provide the Lions with the opportunity for redemption, but that will require a complete change in tactics which is possible but not probable.

South Africa should out-bash, out-kick, out-trashtalk and out-intimidate both the Lions and the officials.

There will be little honour for whoever wins. The world has viewed this series as a regrettable and grubby event, in which both the Lions and the Springboks have done rugby a grave disservice.

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