What a difference a week makes. Last week at this time we were lauding Warren Gatland’s genius and wallowing in Rassie Erasmus’ apparent breakdown.
By Saturday night, the Springboks had their revenge, the Lions Tour was in danger of complete implosion, and the sport itself seemed doomed.
The required answer to both these polar opposite conditions is: Calm down.
I wholly concur that Saturday’s second test was an offence to the eye, and to rugby. But it was actually, in fast-moving, ever-evolving world of rugby tactics, old-fashioned.
The Boks reverted to their ugly game
The Springboks, as is their right and their speciality, reverted to how they played during the Rugby World Cup. We forget, in the joy of the memorable tries by Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe in the final minutes of the final against England, that South Africa were quite dreadful to watch throughout the tournament.
For more than a year after Japan, everyone seemed to want to play South Africa’s style. The Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup in 2020 were awful to watch, endless box kicking and blanket defences.
Over the winter, however, somebody – really Wayne Pivac, Fabien Galthie and our own Gregor Townsend – tore up the script. The 2021 Six Nations was a glorious thing, excitement, great rugby and great fun, many of the games decided in the last ten minutes – or even later – by a single score.
There were as many TMO interventions as last Saturday throughout the Six Nations. They were quite irritating, but they weren’t bringing about the death of the sport.
Domestic rugby in England – in the Gallagher Premiership play-offs everyone simply went mad – France and the rest of Europe was pretty much the same. We seemed to have looked into the abyss of Rassie-ball and said `thanks but naw’.
It was just one game, folks
The Lions Tour will not set the template for rugby in the third decade of the 21st century. And really, we’re still only talking about one dull, bad-tempered game.
The first test had a kind of appealingly loose structure. All South Africa’s tries and non-tries came from loose play or chaos. The Lions had a few line breaks. It was a decently entertaining game.
In the second test the tourists played into South Africa’s hands by being suckered into believing – on the admittedly convincing evidence of the first test – that they could match the Boks blow for blow and kick for kick.
Gatland says now that the Lions wanted to play rugby. I can’t see any evidence that they did until the game was getting away from them.
The same thing may well happen in the deciding test this Saturday. The Springboks, with the bit between their teeth, are going to be hard to shake down now. Even without the injured Faf de Klerk, who is arguably the most important element in their style of playing.
The All Blacks may have something to say about this style
💉 Covid 19 vaccinations underway ahead of the Bledisloe Cup series. pic.twitter.com/Al2clTclyV
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) July 29, 2021
But I still think the trend is away from this style. I’d expect New Zealand to have something to show South Africa about the efficacy of their tactics when they finally meet again in the Rugby Championship this summer.
The last time they met, after all, was the Boks’ only defeat of the World Cup, and it was reasonably comprehensive, 23-13.
The third test, whatever happens, is not going to be the death of the sport. The controversies and meltdowns of the last few weeks are a sideshow. Even if I have no faith in World Rugby holding Erasmus to account for his actions, the game goes on regardless of whether he is or not.
It’s moved on already from what we’ve seen in this tour. The Six Nations, and I’m sure the Rugby Championship and Autumn Internationals that follow this tour, will show that the agenda has changed, and for the better.
Rugby’s not in danger. South Africa’s way of playing is.
…and the Lions aren’t done yet either
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) August 3, 2021
Totally against type, I’m still optimistic for the Lions this weekend. I’ve not been entirely convinced with the Springboks’ strength in depth for a while, they’ve always seemed one half-back injury away from trouble.
A greater tempo to the Lions’ game with Ali Price at 9 should release the back row to play like they did for the last hour of the first test. And with de Klerk’s threat absent, they should be in position to harass Handre Pollard much more than they did in the second test.
My one concern is what manifested itself in the last 20 minutes of the second test, when the Boks fielded three lineout threats and the Lions had no ball on their own throw.
The Boks will have that formation again, and the Lions have the same back five forwards for all three tests.
Can Gatland’s Lions do what they did in 2013? They were definitely in helped that third test in Sydney by a French referee, Romain Poite. He was wise to Australia’s devious methods to avoid an obvious scrummaging deficit.
Saturday’s ref is another Frenchman, Mathieu Raynal. He’s a great ref who stands no nonsense, for sure. But I’m not sure that a French ref helps the Lions here as much as the one in 2013 did.
First Dundee City 7s hansels return of club rugby
If you’re looking for some pre-test fun in the Saturday sunshine – hopefully – then the first live competitive club rugby since lockdown is happening at the Alloway Place grounds with the Dundee City 7s.
Dundee Rugby have never put on a sevens event before, and I’m not quite sure why that is. But they’ve pushed out the boat this time with some quality invites. There will be 24 mens and women’s teams, 19 junior matches, three bars, a live DJ and food trucks.
Tickets are available through
. Under-16s are free, Junior games start at 9 am, seniors at midday.