A tour that failed to sparkle has done the Lions concept few favours | Robert Kitson
Another British & Irish Lions series, another story of nagging regret. Congratulations to a South Africa team that kept their nerve better when it mattered but this tour has not left everyone eagerly counting down the days until the scheduled trip to Australia in 2025.
Regardless of the outcome in Saturday’s third Test, the past few weeks have raised several uncomfortable issues for the Lions and rugby as a whole. In some ways it has been a perfect storm: Covid-19, no travelling fans, social media anger, limited attacking rugby, mediocre provincial opposition and blatant Springbok gamesmanship have all combined to showcase the game in a murky light. Which raises the most apocalyptic question of the lot: if the Lions are no longer widely viewed as a force for good in both hemispheres and start to become little more than an occasional cash cow, what is their long-term value?
Because if their future has been glimpsed on this often fun-free tour, the entire sport has a major problem. Even had Covid been shown an early red card and the stadiums had been overflowing, we would almost certainly still be talking about the dearth of on-field entertainment and the growing disconnect between top-level international rugby union and younger audiences. Good luck to anyone collating the video highlights of this tour because there were precious few of them.
In the past it would have been possible simply to shrug this off as one of those things and propose another loyal toast to the fabled Lions of yesteryear. To stay relevant in a fast-changing world, however, the Lions need to look forwards, not back. If their 2025 tour schedule consists of humdrum warmup games against second-string Super Rugby franchises and routine Tests against a Wallaby squad struggling to beat the individual home unions on their own, who is that ultimately going to benefit?
Just to be clear, these sentences are being typed by someone who has long cherished the Lions concept and knows what it still means to the vast majority of players. “It is very special and if rugby were to lose it, it would be a travesty,” said Alun Wyn Jones, who knows his subject better than most. Even the modern Lion King, though, recognises that the Lions’ essential beauty lies in it being gloriously different from anything else rugby offers: a higher calling, a state of mind, an opportunity to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. If instead it morphs into little more than a dull brand-sweating exercise with little on-field adventure or collective joy, all but the staunchest supporters will start to drift away.
Because even when they lose, the Lions should still be about winning hearts and minds. Perhaps the most pertinent stat of the entire tour is that the Lions managed only two tries in 240 minutes of Test rugby, both from driving mauls. Only when Finn Russell was suddenly thrust into the action after just 11 minutes of the final Test did they begin to buzz with any electricity or generate enough attacking momentum to trouble the outstanding Springbok defence.
How interesting, then, to hear the backs coach Gregor Townsend discussing the future direction of the game as the Lions prepared to go their different ways, mostly to Jersey where their English, Scottish and Welsh players must stay for 10 days before being allowed back to the UK mainland. “I believe the game has already moved to an era when 10s have to be attackers,” said Townsend, praising both Russell and the fast-improving Marcus Smith whom he already considers to be “one of the best attacking 10s in the world” and a blossoming England star. “We’ve seen players like Richie Mo’unga, we’ve seen Finn last night … those are the 10s who put defences under pressure. I do believe their way of playing can win games.”
Maybe the Lions management could have had the courage of such convictions earlier. Either way, without taking away from South Africa’s 2-1 series victory, there is a firm belief within the visiting camp that World Rugby urgently needs to clamp down on the blatant time-wasting, treatment interruptions and cynical behaviour that detracted from the final Test action. “I would hope World Rugby would look at it and how we can make that better,” Townsend said. “I don’t think it is good for the game. We want teams to be under pressure over the 80 minutes because of the game in play, not because of the breaks in games. In football if you’re injured you have to get treatment off the field and the game goes on. That would be a good one to look at.”
The chairman, Jason Leonard, feels similarly. “If it’s happening every 30 seconds – players going down for studs and taping up boots – that is pushing it a bit too far,” he said. “They’ve won the series but … hopefully people will look at that and learn.”
It is a similar story with absurdly crooked scrum put-ins, medical staff screaming tactical instructions at players from the in-goal area and directors of rugby seeking to heap pre-match pressure on officials who have a tough enough task already. In truth, though, the Lions lost this series because they were neither as effective or ruthless as the Springboks when opportunities did present themselves.
The crucial scrum penalty that went against them immediately after they had been held up over the Springbok line, the costly refusal to take the points on offer on a couple of occasions, the non-pass from Liam Williams to an unmarked Josh Adams on the right wing … all could have ensured a very different outcome. “For me they deserved more but that’s sport and we have to live with it,” acknowledged Townsend.
It condemns the Lions to spending another 12 years in pretty much the same mode they have spent the last dozen: being endlessly reminded about the last-gasp heroics of Morné Steyn, whose nerve-free penalty decided this outcome just as it had done in Pretoria in 2009. The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens may soon be entitled to royalties if Morné Has Broken becomes the unofficial new Springbok anthem. In the meantime, the 37-year-old Steyn deserves credit merely for still being around to apply the coup de grâce.
For the Lions, though, it is their future that is now most pressing. They certainly need to improve their strike rate so far this century, which is one series win in six attempts. Just six of this squad will be under 30 in four years’ time and, for all the resilience and patience shown in Covid adversity, a fresh broom is now needed. The abiding lesson of the 2021 tour is that change is required, on and off the field.