From high balls to high standards, Paul Williams reflects on the goings-on of the past month


Handré Pollard high ball masterclass

If you look up ‘Pollard Bomb Masterclass’ you may well end up on a terrorist watchlist, or you’ll find one of the finest 40 minutes of high balls kicked at Test level in recent memory.

South Africa fly-half Handré Pollard was fantastic in the second Test of the British & Irish Lions 2021 series and the accuracy of his ‘bombs’ was military. Each one seemed to land two inches in front of the Lions’ back three and caused more spillages than all of ‘Big Petroleum’ combined.

The knock-ons in the Lions’ ‘middle-third’ meant that the tourists were pinned in their own half for much of the second half. With the resulting dominant lineouts and scrummaging from the Boks, particularly after the introduction of Lood de Jager and Trevor Nyakane, the Lions scored zero points in the second 40 minutes.

It goes without saying that it’s hard to win matches when you’re not scoring any tries in 80 minutes. But when you’re also not scoring any kicks at goal in the last 40 minutes, Test rugby becomes an uncomfortable place to be.

It will be interesting to see the Lions selection for the third Test, as it is unlikely the Boks will deviate from their very successful second Test game plan. Do they opt to attack more from the outset and limit the ability of the Boks to kick ‘contestables’ into the Lions’ half, or pick a back three purely designed to deal with the balls falling from heaven. Difficult decisions lie ahead.

CSI Rugby makes its debut

It was only a matter of time before rugby’s officials became the forensic experts of rugby, and the second Test in Cape Town is when CSI Rugby first aired on our screens.

Fueled by the fallout from the first Test, and Rassie Erasmus’s directorial debut, the pressure on the referees was immense. You could see it in their eyes and the way they stood.

Normally there is a noticeable distance between the assistants and the referee, a clear delineation of responsibility and hierarchy. But in the second Test you could see that the entire officiating unit was in this together. They discussed every decision like it was a true crime series on Netflix – all it needed was some coffee, a whiteboard and an unshaded lightbulb.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe (centre) looks on with his assistants Mathieu Raynal and Nic Berry (Getty Images)

At times it felt as though the refereeing decisions were the game and the rugby was the filler. Such was the stop-start nature of the first half that even the prop’s shirts were dry on the blowing of the half-time whistle, when normally you could potentially grow rice in them.

The fallout from the first Test was bound to affect the game – and it did. But not purely in the attention to detail of each offence or the increase in match time – the playing time was long enough to burn something in a slow cooker.

The slow pace of the staccato first half meant that Boks forwards were far fresher in the last 20 than they were in the first Test and the benefit was massive. The Springbok domination of the set-piece in the final 30 minutes was enormous and led to the most one-sided period of rugby in the Test series so far.

If Rassie felt shortchanged last week, you could argue that Warren Gatland will this week.

The third Test will be epic.

Lood de Jager makes an impact

We all have an idea of the ideal impact sub. Whether it’s a back or forward, they’re usually dynamic defensively or offensively and can generate an ‘ooooooo’ from a line break or an ‘owwwwwww’ from a big hit.

For most people, Lood de Jager doesn’t fit this description. When you’re that size it’s difficult to be dynamic. This a man for whom sleeping bags double as socks. But his impact on the second Test was bigger than even his massive frame.

With Pollard dominating the airspace like a seagull with a chip on its shoulder and in its mouth, South Africa lock de Jager entered the game and added a few inches to the lineout, in both attack and defence, and mass into the scrum. From the moment he arrived, the game changed, and the possession and territory stats began to swing.

If the Boks continue with this blueprint in the third Test, and why wouldn’t they, the Lions may need the sort of 25-minute bulk that only Adam Beard can provide. Beard may also not fit your definition of an impact sub, but he eats mauls and lineouts at the same rate as de Jager. Another key decision needs to be made by Gatland.

World Rugby need to make statement, but not that one

Rassie Erasmus has always been at the cutting edge of coaching – both on and off the field. Whether it’s implementing a traffic light system on the roof of the stand or broadcasting his thoughts on refereeing decisions through social media, he always leaves his mark.

And if you’ve ever seen him discuss rugby, you’ll know that his ideas don’t come from a place of negativity, more a positive improvement for the game – in his eyes at least.

His feature-long critique, from the first Test, has actually been critiqued more than the performance of the officials that it involved – it wouldn’t have been a shock to see it being rated on Rotten Tomatoes.

Many have argued that World Rugby should make a comment on the Hollywood blockbuster that landed on our screens after the first Test, and they should. But it isn’t the statement that many think. Instead of criticising his actions, World Rugby should let everyone, including Erasmus, know that a rugby match can’t be refereed perfectly and never will.

There has never been a single rugby match, amateur or professional, where every decision has been correct. There seems to be a current trend on social media to imply that refereeing standards are getting worse. When they aren’t.

Professional referees and the use of technology has meant that refereeing is at the highest standard it has ever been. If you watch a match from the 1980s it’s like watching a scene from the French Revolution.

The message should not be for referees to up their standards, but for us to make ours more reasonable. Coaches, players and, most importantly, supporters need to understand that rugby can’t be refereed by a selection of humans without mistakes and the sooner we all accept rugby for what it is, the happier we will all be.

Fiji deliver small nation dominance

Being Welsh, coming from a country with a reasonably small population, makes you appreciate when another small nation excels at something.

Fiji is this country, and the Olympics was its glorious shop window. With gold secured in the men’s competition and bronze in the women’s, Fiji has now become one of those countries that is synonymous with niche excellence – much like New Zealand in 15s and Jamaica in sprinting.

This level of achievement is rather expected from the men’s team, who also delivered gold in 2016. But when you consider that some of the women’s team only started playing 18 months ago and some hadn’t even left their nation before, it really highlights just what an achievement this is.

The white icing, with black edging, on the Olympic cake, has been how Fiji has achieved their medals. This hasn’t been functional rugby where creativity has been superseded by PowerPoint plans. Fijian sevens, like their 15s, remains an art in a world of rugby science.

Fiji are a joy to watch in all forms of the game.

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