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01st Aug 2021

What a waste of bloody talent

Patrick McCarry


“There were a couple of opportunities where we probably should have put the ball through the hands.”

Lions coach Warren Gatland was open to acknowledging the stark failings of his side, after their Second Test loss to South Africa, but he has a lot to answer for himself, in that regard.

The British & Irish Lions had the Springboks on the ropes after their First Test victory. The worry was that the world champions would be much improved after that tough first game, personnel tweaks and a lot of analysis.

Still, the Lions had a free shot. They never took it.

Following their 29-7 defeat to the Boks, Ronan O’Gara said he would now favour the hosts as it is very hard to discern what the Lions’ tactics or style are. He was spot-on.

It very much looked like the Lions wanted to stay in the contest until the second half when they would hopefully, like the ‘A’ game and First Test, pull clear as the South Africans flagged. They went in 9-6 up at the break, but the second half was an unmitigated disaster.

Whereas last week the Lions won the aerial battle, they comprehensively lost it in the Second Test. The Boks put up 22 contestables for the Lions. The tourists shanked 11 of them, nine of which came in the second half. Add to that a scrum that was getting gobbled up and an imperious Springbok lineout, and it made for a tough Lions watch.

There was a chance to make the second half more of a slog but Dan Biggar clanged the post with a penalty attempt when his side were 11-9 down. Had the Lions edged back in front, they would have had something to cling to. Instead, they were free-falling with a moth-chewed umbrella for a parachute.

Looking back at the match statistics and they confirm what your eyes told you – the Lions back row and backline were on a hiding to nothing. The aim of the game, from both sides, was to kick, punt and chase. The Springboks kicked the ball for 1,012 metres. The Lions kicked for 774.

In terms of metres gained with ball-in-hand, the stats make for awful reading. Stuart Hoggs – 11 carries for 19 metres – gained the most ground of any Lion. The starting back row (Lawes, Curry and Conan) made 16 carries for a COMBINED gain of 14 metres.

In the backline, Duhan van der Merwe (1) and Anthony Watson (3) had four carries for the entire game, while Chris Harris was almost non-existent in attack (three carries for 0 metres).

While the players will be taking a lot of flak – and scoring poorly in the match ratings – you have to apportion much of the blame on Warren Gatland, Gregor Townsend and the rest of the Lions coaches.

Pre-meditated move

One moment in the first half showed you it was going to be a tough grind for any back looking to cut through the Bok defence.

Nine minutes into the game and the Lions had the ball in the Springboks’ 22 for the first time. Courtney Lawes collected a Luke Cowan-Dickie lineout throw and you wondered what sort of set-play Gatland and Townsend had cooked up.

What we got was a re-heat of the First Test. Ignoring the options out wide [and under instructions, of course], Dan Biggar went for a Garryowen.

At least Willie Le Roux knocked the ball on. At least the Lions won a penalty, soon after. At least Biggar made it 3-3.

The lack of ambition and the willingness to play the Boks at their game was startling, though. For all the talent this Lions side possesses, it was laying the cards on the table and saying they were just as happy to make it messy.

One area the South Africans were able to exploit was slowing the game to a crawl. It never allowed the Lions, who should be fitter, to make their cardio count. The running time for the 80-minute game was 114 minutes. Asked about the stop-start nature of the contest, Gatland said:

“The referee was continually talking to them about trying to speed the game up and keep it moving. He was trying to stop the clock. So that it is something we will look at raising next week in terms of how we get some more tempo in the game, that every stoppage isn’t an injury stoppage which we seemed to have particularly in that second-half.”

Some people will point to the big winning margins in warm-up games as a sign that the Lions are capable of playing tear-it-up rugby. In truth, the franchises did not put up much of a fight and the ‘A’ game was the only real test of what Gatland’s side could do. That was another poor spectacle.

With Handré Pollard sticking multiple daggers in, over the last 20 minutes, the TV cameras took to flashing up at the un-needed Lions stars in the stands. Josh Adams, Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Sam Simmonds, Finn Russell and Marcus Smith were up there. All capable of moments of brilliance but not required by Gatland for ‘cup final’ rugby.

The Kiwi has never shied away from making big calls, so expect changes for the Third Test. A couple of those game-breakers could feature.

It was always going to be this way, and the tea leaves showed us that when the 37-man squad was announced. Leaving Jonny May, Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade and Johnny Sexton at home – in favour of the likes of Owen Farrell, Duhan van der Merwe, Chris Harris and Bundee Aki – was an indication that the Lions felt they could only beat the Boks by matching them first.

There has been a shocking waste of talent from the Lions coaches, but we never should have expected much different.

Such thinking has not sunk them. They are 1-1 with a game to play. Can the Boks somehow reach the emotional and physical levels of Saturday night again? It would be a big ask, but it is not impossible.

We all return our attention to Cape Town, next Saturday. It probably won’t be pretty, but it will be compelling.



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