Farce or fiasco. Hard words maybe, but it’s not easy to find softer ones to describe the goings-on in South Africa, where the Lions’ moral compass points firmly towards the financial imperative, TV rights and sponsorship.
Perhaps that’s inevitable, perhaps it’s the real reason for going at all. The tour is lurching from one Covid crisis to the next and that, frankly, might well have been inevitable too. And don’t forget, too, that SA Rugby only gave up its very strong determination of having spectators in the stands, very late in the day; whereas the reality was that it was never going to happen.
It is very sad to see the tour unravel, and perhaps even now the Test series will be saved, but at what cost? Of course, players and coaches, Lions or South African, want to live their dreams, and every rugby fan wants to see them do it, but there comes a moment when, even elite rugby, must choose another option. There is going to be a very interesting post-tour debrief of all the decisions taken around this tour, and the reasons for them, oh to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
The warm-up matches will have helped the Lions to oil the machine to some extent, and to loosen up a few limbs, but they have been anything but competitive, and have given no indication of what the Test matches will produce in terms of intensity.
Warren Gatland has conjured up a second match against the Sharks to replace the cancelled fixture versus the Bulls; but, with Covid cases in both camps, South Africa's second warm-up match against Georgia also had to go by the board. All the Lions players are reported to be bearing up very well, but it would be perfectly normal that some are suffering from being isolated, or from continuing to be in yet another rugby bubble. Player welfare has to be a strong consideration, off the pitch as well as on it.
While things are utterly chaotic, maybe it will improve when the Lions move to Cape Town, where Covid is not as rampant as in Gauteng province. If that improvement does not materialise, then the time may have to come when the only wise move will be for the Lions to break camp, point their compass north and head for home.
A recent World Rugby announcement really made me sit up and pay attention.
It has been busy tweaking the mitigating factors for suspensions for players who receive a red card for head contact. In a novel, and very importantly-named “technique coaching intervention”, it comes with the stated intention of reducing concussions caused by such head contact. It is to be piloted for a year.
“What!?” you may well ask, so here’s the plan as announced by World Rugby, to be piloted for one year in all elite competitions.
In plain English, the basic premise is that red-carded players, who receive a suspension, may apply for an extra week’s reduction in their sentence, provided they receive tackling lessons. Many suspensions are generally for six weeks, but pretty much always mitigated to three for showing remorse and good behaviour at the hearing. This extra week will reduce the total playing ban to two weeks – is that really a deterrent, or is it part of an effort to minimise the effects of a red card, in which case other questions would arise?
While it’s a great idea to give players lessons in tackling technique, it’s hard to believe that something so “one-off” will change behaviour in the white-hot heat of real battle. And, surely tackle technique should be a normal and consistent element of coaching, far better for each team to have to present evidence to World Rugby that they have carried out a designated number of required coaching hours on this subject.
Let's look back for a moment at a few tackles from last season, and to think that these could earn mitigation, by way of this "technique coach intervention" does not ring true. Owen Farrell's horrible swinging arm to the head of 18-year-old Wasps player Charlie Atkinson, earned him a ban of five week, which included a 50 per cent sentence reduction, for reasons which, very strangely, included Farrell's charitable work. And this new-fangled idea would reduce it further. Does that make any sense to you, because it doesn't to me.
Connacht's Abraham Papali'i joined the province from Bay of Plenty, and immediately went on a dangerous tackle red-card run, finishing off the season with a grand total of three. For the third card, the judiciary, in a singularly unimpressive performance, still managed to find mitigation, despite the player's record. They were apparently impressed by his determination to change, but it was very far from any concept of "three strikes and you're out".
So, rugby continues to have a very real problem and there remains a massive requirement for a change in player behaviour – and that change must happen. And it is the coaches who must lead, they have a grave responsibility, and World Rugby must insist that they deliver – it should not be a question of waiting for a red card before getting down to work. Astonishingly, the World Rugby announcement goes on to say, “it will also challenge expert coaches to think about tackle technique and player safety”, which, of course, suggests they are not doing much thinking now. That has to go into the file labelled “you couldn’t make it up”.
Many current and past international coaches sit on the World Rugby high-performance committee, so they are easily accessible and also in a position to act. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that some will be conflicted and will want any and all measures which reduce the length of suspensions, including this latest.
At the same time, parents, and young men and women, continue to scratch their heads, whether to play this game. Or not.