If you’re like us, you are perhaps close to breathing a sigh of relief once the final whistle for this emotionally fraught series gets blown on Saturday. Mired in controversy from the outset, which has only grown as the series has progressed, this Lions Tour has hardly been one for the archives. The rugby has been a fascinating slugfest, but as a spectacle it has been short on entertainment, and the empty stadiums have contributed to its rather lifeless feel. The two sides seem to have little respect for each other and in general it’s been a rather ill-tempered and nasty affair. It’s been uncomfortable to watch at times from both sides, and the quality of the rugby on display has been average at best. In short, it’s a Tour that we are likely to forget rather than remember.
All that aside though, there’s the hope that Saturday’s series decider will revert to the kind of rugby we all know and love and in the process the spirit of our great game will be restored. Ignoring all the off field shenanigans there is no denying that all the players from both sides have put their heart and soul into a Tour that for all intents and purposes seemed fated not to happen at all. South Africa will want to prove to the world ahead of a challenging Rugby Championship, that despite their two year absence from Test rugby, the reasons that they are World Champions are there for all to see. For the Lions, they will want to prove that despite the adversity, this Tour can still showcase the proud history and traditions associated with the Lions, and that wearing the treasured red jersey is still a once in a lifetime experience.
Despite all the difficulties and much of the negativity surrounding the Tour, we got what we wanted a series decider – so hopefully it’s time to shut down the media circus and let the real business begin. Here’s what got us talking about the final showdown in Cape Town.
Hardly Pitch Perfect!!!!
Cape Town’s Stadium was intended for fleet footed and less heavyweight competitors than rugby players. It was never designed to have 1800 kgs of human flesh trying to anchor itself to the surface in a scrum. If you watched the pitch being endlessly turned up in both Tests you have to wonder how much the pitch itself is contributing to some of the more lackluster aspects of the rugby we’ve seen so far. We lost count last weekend as to how many times scrums collapsed as players couldn’t secure their footing or players slipping just as they accelerated on breaking the gain line as another piece of turf gave way under them.
This Tour has had enough challenges to begin with but to have to contend with the pitch as a sixteenth man adds insult to injury for both sides and wreaks havoc with a team’s momentum. It would appear that the pitch will have had two full days to dry out prior to Saturday’s penultimate match, as Cape Town’s normally wet winter climate gives the ground a breather. It is a great shame that it couldn’t have been played at the legendary former home of Test Rugby in Cape Town – the hallowed grounds at Newlands. It will be fascinating to see if given the ground’s influence on the first two Tests, both sides will try and play a game that allows for its failings.
One of South Africa’s most underrated players shows us why he is such a force to be reckoned with
We’ve always felt the giant Springbok second rower has been under appreciated by his country. Sure he’s had his injury problems which has by necessity kept him out of the spotlight and at times made it difficult for him to have the kind of impact he is clearly so capable of. However, as he showed in the second Test against the Lions, when he is on song he truly is a force to be reckoned with. He made the departure of Pieter-Steph du Toit one of the Boks most influential forwards seem almost a non-event. He slotted into the second row as Franco Mostert moved out to the flanks to cover for du Toit. With fellow second rower Eben Etzebeth, the two giant Springbok locks dominated lineout proceedings in the second half and de Jager carried and tackled like a man possessed. Paired once again with Eben “take no prisoners” Etzebeth we fully expect to see the Lions Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones struggle to come to terms with the havoc the two South Africans are so effective at creating.
The “Beast” Mk 2?
In the legendary footsteps of Springbok prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane was a force to behold in the second Test against the Lions when he came off the bench. He didn’t have his best game when he started for the Boks in the opening Test, but went on to prove that a week is a very long time in Test Rugby. The Trevor Nyakane of the first Test was indistinguishable from the raging bull that went by the same name in the Second Test. After he replaced Steven Kitshoff in the last quarter the Blue Bulls tighthead prop made life an absolute misery for the Lions Kyle Sinckler and Rory Sutherland. He finds himself once more on the bench for this match, but being equally comfortable at loosehead or tighthead, the Lions are likely to remember his presence no matter how short-lived on Saturday.
Righteous Fire and Brimstone
While he may have had a rather quiet first Test, Springbok Captain and flanker Siya Kolisi came out guns blazing in the second. It was an inspirational performance and one which clearly provided his charges with the motivation they needed, not that it really seemed to be lacking to begin with. His presence of mind to prevent the Lions Robbie Henshaw from scoring a potentially game changing try was outstanding, but was one of a multitude of big game moments from the Springbok Captain. Whatever confidence he seemed to lack in the first Test, is clearly behind him as he was everywhere last Saturday. He was confident, assertive and utterly tireless in his efforts while his execution was flawless. It was a master class performance and one which his opposite number Alun Wyn Jones struggled to emulate. With history on the line he’ll likely be even more fired up this weekend.
The missing link
The fact that master of the air Liam Williams has only got ten minutes off the bench in the first two Tests, and try scoring machine Josh Adams has not even made the matchday 23 for either, seems to defy all logic. Given the Boks propensity to send things skywards, the omission of two players who are perhaps your most comfortable in the aerial battles has seemed a strange choice indeed. Admittedly Liam Williams didn’t look his sharpest in the warm up games, and got rather schooled in the game against South Africa A (aka an almost full strength Springbok side), so perhaps Lions Coach Gatland’s reservations were justified. However, the time has come to throw caution to the wind a bit (pun aside) and let two players who shine in the aerial contests, as well as Adams ability to find the try line have their final say on proceedings. South Africa’s Willie le Roux can have an off day, and given the calmness under pressure that Williams is known for, this could be an area where the Lions get some much needed traction and composure. Adams meanwhile can on his day match anything South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi can throw at him and allied to the magic of the Lions Finn Russell at fly half, it could be the right counter to the enterprise shown by the Springbok winger last week. Either way we can’t wait to see if Gatland’s gamble pays off.
It should be a terrific contest, and like we say, hopefully the jibes and off field antics from both sides are done and it’s time to let the rugby do the talking. It may not have been a classic Lions series, but it still clearly means a great deal to both sides. In Saturday’s do or die, winner takes all contest we think that the Series may finally find its groove and give us all something to cheer about, whoever lifts the silverware at the end of it. It’s hard to argue against South Africa clinching the Series after their performance last week, but let’s not forget, both games were won by the team who put in the better second half. So as both sides roll the dice, we’re sure there’ll be plenty to talk about on Saturday night and hopefully for all the right reasons!