Ball in Warren Gatland’s court after a week that laid bare rugby union’s ugly side | Michael Aylwin
If Lions tours are supposed to spread the Gospel of Rugby, they best choose somewhere else to go. If they are to satisfy the bloodlust of the already converted, then why play anyone else? This match, like the last – indeed this whole week – has showed rugby at its ugliest and most difficult to love. Which is just how some people, well, love it.
And now the dust has settled, we are confronted with what no Lions tour to South Africa has known since 1910 – a series tied up for the final Test. The mind boggles. Social media channels hum in anticipation, no doubt on the brink of the latest explosion of controversy.
But credit where it is due. After they failed their first meaningful Test as world champions, the Springboks elicited the requisite response.
Quite the manoeuvre it was, too. Whatever else Rassie Erasmus was intending in his infamous hour-long rant on social media, questioning the competence or even probity of a referee was not really it. What we can be sure, though, is that he wanted to foster a siege mentality where there shouldn’t be one. A home series in front of an empty stadium in a country with, shall we say, bigger things on its mind right now is not an apt environment for us-against‑the‑world defiance.
Love him or loathe him and the disservice he paid his sport this past week, this was a masterclass in motivation. Anyone can put together a highlights reel of unjust decisions from any given 80 minutes in a sport as convoluted and contentious as this – and then proceed to perform the same exercise for the other team – but generally these things happen, if and when they do at all, behind closed doors. To put an entire hour of them into the public domain, bypassing all “the usual channels”, hit just the right note for those within his bubble, if not for anyone else.
He will no doubt pay a price when the feds at World Rugby catch up with him, but that will not trouble Eramus. He has already offered to fall on his sword anyway. The end has justified the means, either way.
Fired by the differing energies of his touchstone players in the pack, the ferocious Eben Etzebeth and South Africa’s angel of iron, Siya Kolisi, the Springboks built to an unanswerable rhythm in the second half. Their half-backs played along to it, having missed a few notes in the first half. The Lions, all angelic themselves this week, could not locate the sense of hurt to respond, or simply to prevent it in the first place.
But sport does not always follow obvious patterns. Swings of fortune are swift and continuous. Just ask England, who were the greatest team in the world one week in Japan then absolutely banjaxed by this same South Africa the next. Suddenly the Springboks were the team to beat, and they were undone next, albeit nearly two years later.
This response was a classic exposition of bouncebackability. Not only were South Africa the aggrieved party all of a sudden, but the Lions looked uncomfortable on the moral high ground, almost as if they knew something was brewing amid all the palaver on social media.
Now it is up to them to respond. The first thing they might do is pick Liam Williams and maybe a couple of others adept under a sea of arrows – pick more of the Welsh, you might say. Which Warren Gatland has been curiously reluctant to do on this tour.
More fundamentally though, they will need to locate a sense of grievance themselves now. Siege mentalities are meant to be the thing of tourists.
Whether Gatland or anyone else resorts to a manipulation of social media to achieve this aim remains to be seen. Some people love the eternally buzzing airwaves of the modern era; some despair. The cleverest use it to their advantage.
In the end, of course, it will come down to something more substantial within the personalities of the respective groups, but there is something ugly about Lions tours in the age of social media. Whether it be the Brian O’Driscoll affair of the 2013 series, the trials by gif of the 2017 or this latest lapse in taste and maturity, the grand old concept of the Lions tour is labouring under social media’s toxic cloud, before we have even considered such concepts as player welfare and a crowded calendar.
Whether this particular edition should have taken place at all is one thing, but if the aim is to spread that gospel, nothing we have seen on or off the field in the last few weeks has commended the sport in any way. Forget the pride of these particular Lions or Springboks, there is an awful lot riding on this last Test.