We like everyone else couldn’t wait for the highly anticipated start to the three Test series between South Africa’s Springboks and the British and Irish Lions to get underway. As excited as we were for Australian referee Nic Berry to blow the whistle for kickoff, like many we breathed a sigh of relief when he blew for full time. Not so much because we’d been on the edge of our seats for 80 minutes, but more due to the fact that it was an unbalanced game from both sides, with a ton of inconsistencies in how it was managed (more on that later) and didn’t really make for the spectacle we’d hoped for. It was scrappy and although the Lions were the victors, it wasn’t by much and they were only marginally the better side. This week’s contest should hopefully be an infinitely more balanced affair across the park and from all parties concerned, allowing us to focus more on the rugby on the pitch than its after effects off it!
Either way, take the off field media circus away and the Springboks will be up for this one and then some. Put the mind games to one side, and South Africa will be better than they were last weekend. The rust will have been blown off, players will be fitter, the squad will have gelled and become stronger as a unit and lastly pride is likely to motivate this group of individuals to step up their game rather dramatically. In short, the Lions will need to be wary plain and simple. In many ways the First Test was more an exercise for both sides to get the measure of each other. The Lions with more game time under their belts as a unit, ultimately made the better fist of it, but not by much and as a result the gloves are clearly off this weekend so assume the brace position. It’s do or die stuff for both teams this Saturday and as a result should make for quite the Test match.
We could probably write a book on last weekend’s action and what it means for this Saturday, but instead we’ll stick to the five key points that got us thinking the most in relation to this weekend.
Don’t shoot the water boy
World Cup winning Coach for the Springboks Rassie Erasmus has found many ways to get his message across this week, both to his players and the world at large. The problem is that it hasn’t really sat all that well with a lot of people, and we are no longer sure of exactly what his role is with the Team. The official Head Coach Jacques Nienaber seems to have very little say in what happens both on and off the pitch. While there were plenty of images of Erasmus pacing the pitch and giving lots of advice on rehydration (even if he wasn’t actually supplying any) to his former charges, Nienaber appeared like a caged animal pacing the Coaching box looking rather lost and ineffectual. While we have no issue with Erasmus’ water boy role (even if he could legitimize it a bit more by actually handing out the odd bottle of water just for appearances), you have to wonder whether the Lions Coaching staff would be offered the same freedoms? Will we see Gregor Townsend masquerading as a physio this Saturday on the pitch and if we did would the officials or public at large say anything about it? As long as it’s balanced and both sides are allowed to do so, even if it looks rather footballesque, then we don’t really have an issue with it.
As for the more controversial aspect of Rassie’s hour long rant about officiating standards in the first Test – well that’s a hard nut to crack. Erasmus is a charismatic figure and we don’t doubt for a moment that his commitment to the Springboks is without question, especially as the vast majority of the current Bok squad are the players he brought to World Cup glory. There is a deep bond there between the players and their former Coach that is a truly ‘special relationship’. As a result though there is a danger that the merits of his overriding plea for consistency in officiating, which he feels was so lacking last Saturday, may be tinged with a slightly less than objective bias. He made some valid points that we can all agree with, but a one hour monologue is sadly not the most effective or appropriate vehicle to state your case.
On the one hand we salute him for having the courage to stand up and put himself in the spotlight by demanding something from Rugby’s governing body that we have all complained about for at least the last ten years. The game’s rules need to be applied consistently and fairly across the board. Make your point by highlighting one or two clear cut examples and leave it at that. However, to go at length for over an hour on picking out every call you felt didn’t go your way runs the risk of making you out to be a sore loser. Some of the calls he highlights are extremely marginal and in the heat of the action on the pitch, it’s unreasonable to expect the referee to see every nuance that you see after analyzing the tapes for several hours. If you do that then sure you will always find inconsistencies but sometimes referees have to call them as they see them in the moment. If not then an eighty minute game becomes a process akin to North American football where play is stopped every few seconds, momentum is lost and we spend more time watching TMO replays than the actual game. Nic Berry and his officiating team made a few howlers make no mistake, but given the nature of the game unfortunately it is almost impossible to avoid. Teams sometimes just have to pick themselves up and move on and now sadly so do you Rassie.
Deer in the headlights?
Well you’ve all seen Director of South African Rugby Rassie Erasmus’ thoughts on the performance of these three individuals last Saturday. Nic Berry who oversaw the first Test found his performance put under the brightest of lights by the former Springbok Coach this week, and his associates didn’t fare much better. Consequently New Zealand’s Ben O’Keeffe must surely be feeling more than a little anxious about taking charge of this week’s crucial Second Test. While we don’t necessarily feel that Nic Berry’s shortcomings, of which there were a few, needed an hour long diatribe – his and his team’s skills in applying the rules of the game in a fair and consistent manner equitable to both teams definitely need some work. These are points that came out of Rassie’s video that need addressing and which in our opinion are the most important.
Player welfare and safety must be paramount and across the board. First and foremost, Scotland and the Lions Hamish Watson should have been given a yellow, possibly a red, for his spear tackle on Willie le Roux. Watson is a terrific player and fan favorite here at the Lineout. He is not a dirty or ill disciplined player who has a history of foul play. That tackle on le Roux however, was clear for all to see and sadly inexcusable. It was reckless and dangerous and players need to know that whatever their track record, that is a punishable offence. As a parent of a boy who desperately wants to play, I and many like me simply don’t want to see that. It has to be sanctioned every time – no ifs, buts or maybes. Mako Vunipola’s impatient yanking of Kolbe off the floor after a hefty tackle was also out of order and disrespectful, especially if the Springbok winger had suffered an injury. Lastly, Lions winger Duhan van der Merwe lifting Springbok winger Makazole Mapimpi’s legs off the ground in the tackle was also questionable, although the impact of South African centre Damian de Allende hitting both of them at speed caused the lift to go higher, making it seem a lot worse. Nevertheless it showed a lack of care in putting the tackled player to the ground safely.
The last point is that apparently the officiating team appeared to “brush off” Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi every time he approached them, while at the same time giving the Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones their full attention. Although we have a certain degree of sympathy with this argument, and both Captains should have the same amount of attention and respect from the officials, there is also a question of leadership here. Jones is a master of the Test arena and the World’s most capped player. He has a wealth of experience in addressing referees and getting them to listen. Kolisi on the other hand has not, and sadly it showed on Saturday. Jones has mastered the art of talking to referees, something which Kolisi still needs to work on. The Lions Captain is more comfortable with being assertive. He walks right up to the officials, stands his ground, makes sure they hear him, and only then retreats. All too often on Saturday Kolisi made his argument half-heartedly from a distance and rarely pressed his case or looked confident in his assertions. He’s a great and inspirational Captain but playing the referees is sadly just as important a skill as playing the game itself and one which Kolisi still has a lot to learn.
The “Ginger Ninja” meets the “Jukebox”
So enough of the circus surrounding last week’s Test and down to the business at hand this Saturday. Two great players of the modern forwards game get another chance to size up against each other. South African loosehead prop Stephen Kitshoff and Ireland and Lions tighthead Tadhg Furlong do battle once more, but this time Kitshoff starts as opposed to appearing off the bench last weekend where surprisingly he didn’t match up against the Irishman and his subsequent replacement England’s Kyle Sinckler. These are two powerful scrummagers and players who are equally feisty in the loose and renown for their bullocking runs. The contest between the Lion and what should be a much fitter Springbok is likely to be one of the highlights of the afternoon.
Jasper Wiese gets his shot on the BIG stage
Firstly, before we sing the praises of a Mr. Wiese, we think we need to qualify his windfall at the expense of Kwagga Smith, who wore the number eight jersey for the Boks last weekend. We had serious reservations about Smith playing as a number eight last Saturday, not because he isn’t a good player, but a number eight he most definitely is not. As the smaller of the two men, he got made mincemeat of by Ireland and the Lions Jack Conan who is and always has been a natural number eight. Smith excels as a flanker and wing forward, a role he simply wasn’t allowed to play last Saturday. This weekend sees him on the bench, and expect to see him brought in when his impact with the kind of skills he has are needed most.
Consequently Weise, who plays more of his time at number eight, and is known as a dynamic and powerful ball carrier much in the mold of the much missed Duane Vermeulen for the Springboks, deserves his shot at glory on Saturday. He’ll be hard pressed to better the Lions Jack Conan who was one of the tourists standout players last weekend. However, much like the battle between Furlong and Kitshoff – Weise vs Conan will be one of the title fights of the weekend.
Harris’ defensive skills will be needed against de Allende who has learnt the value of ball security
It seems that England Coach Eddie Jones is not the only one who seems to want keep experimenting with utility back Elliot Daly. Warren Gatland continues to try and find where to put the Englishman and his monster boot. However, if you ask us Daly is simply an impact player and not a Test starter. His boot is seriously useful, but he just doesn’t seem to fit a role in any kind of consistent manner. Harris on the other hand, while not being the most flashy player on the park has been steadfastly solid in defense for both Scotland and the Lions so far on tour. He’ll need it against De Allende, who he struggled with when they met in the South Africa A match. In the past, you could almost guarantee that giving the ball to the one dimensional battering ram Springbok center would result in a knock on. Those days seem to be behind him. Not only has he mastered hanging on to the ball especially under pressure, he’s become quite adept at executing some handy offloads as well as receiving them. Big, powerful and fast he’s become a lot more imaginative in how he plays the game and partnered with live wire Lukhanyo Am, the Springboks now have a genuinely exciting center partnership. The Lions can match it both physically and creatively in Robbie Henshaw and Chris Harris and this should be one of the most exciting contests on the park this Saturday.
So put aside all the questionable media exploits this week from both sides and settle down to a match which should hopefully provide all the excitement and quality that a tour of this magnitude should give us. The sparks were there last weekend but they never really managed to keep the fire going for the full eighty minutes from both sides. In a game of two halves the Lions ended up being marginally more proficient, significantly fitter and a tad luckier with the rub of the green. This weekend expect a much more level playing field both from the teams themselves and how the calls are made by the officials. Let’s hope that this weekend the Springboks/Lions Tour really starts in earnest and lives up to its proud pedigree, while setting us up for a Series decider in the third and final Test. Enjoy everyone and stay safe!