Jon Cardinelli reflects on an unprecedented series in South Africa


History repeats itself for Morné Steyn and the Lions

No 22 coming off the bench to win a series for South Africa. The British & Irish Lions – Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones in particular – have seen this movie before.

Back in 2009, Morné Steyn was deployed in the latter stages of the second Test for the sole purpose of kicking penalties or drop-goals. When Ronan O’Gara took Fourie du Preez out in the air and the hosts were awarded a penalty, Steyn – playing in only his second Test – grabbed the kicking tee, took aim and booted the Springboks to a series win.

That Test at Loftus Versfeld was staged a lifetime ago. Since then, Steyn has gone on to win a Tri-Nations title with the Boks, several more titles with the Bulls and a Top 14 trophy with Stade Francais. While he’s been at the top of the rugby pyramid, he’s also experienced what it feels like to be at the bottom.

Steyn last played for the Boks in the 57-15 loss to the All Blacks in 2016 – a record defeat for the South Africans on home soil. When he made his comeback this past Saturday, he had the opportunity to rewrite the ending to his international rugby story.

Not that Jacques Nienaber could watch this chapter unfold. After the game, the Boks coach revealed that he had his head between his legs when Steyn – on for the misfiring Handré Pollard – stepped up to take a late penalty.

Typically, a cheer or a groan would accompany the outcome of such a kick. On this occasion, with no fans in attendance at the Cape Town Stadium, the cheers came from the Boks reserves as well as Nienaber’s lieutenants in the coaching box. The noise confirmed that the kick was good, and that history had indeed repeated itself.

It was a bright end to a tour marred by nasty and at times divisive storylines. Indeed, there was even a lighter moment after Steyn ended the game with a penalty kick to touch.

Finn Russell rushed forward to charge down the kick and to create something from nothing – as he so often does. The ball sailed into touch, so Russell checked his run to avoid clattering into Steyn.

Without hesitating, Steyn embraced the Lions fly-half, a gesture which confirmed that the two teams do respect one another, even though the events of the past three weeks might suggest otherwise.

Captains stand tall

Alun Wyn Jones was in tears after the final whistle. The result marked his second series loss in South Africa as a Lions player. Nobody can say that the inspirational skipper didn’t go down fighting.

Six weeks ago, the Lions were dealt a serious blow after Jones dislocated his shoulder and was prevented from travelling to South Africa with the team. The veteran lock went on to make a miracle recovery ahead of the Lions 2021 series against the Boks, and was backed by Gatland to lead the team.

The decisions taken by Jones in the first Test, and indeed the manner in which he managed referee Nic Berry, went a long way towards securing an important win for the visitors. Over the course of the series, Jones put his body on the line. Like all top players, Jones pushed the boundaries and niggled at the opposition with the aim of gaining an edge.

There’s little doubt that Jones’s performance inspired the other Lions players to reach a new level of physicality. It could also be said that his leadership inspired a magnificent response from opposite number Siya Kolisi.

There were doubts around Kolisi’s fitness going into this series. After the South Africa captain contracted Covid-19, there were serious concerns that a team without Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen – sidelined with an ankle injury – would battle against a Lions side stacked with international captains.

Kolisi rose to the challenge, however, producing an improved performance in the second and third Tests. The Boks leadership took the right options at key moments to win both matches.

Kolisi made some massive contributions at the collisions – none more important than the desperate dive which knocked the ball free from Robbie Henshaw’s grasp in the second Test. That play denied the Lions centre a try at a crucial point in the contest.

There should be no more debate about whether Kolisi deserves to start. The Boks would not have won this series against the Lions without Kolisi’s leadership or destructive defence.

The Men of the Series

Picking a Man of the Series is a difficult task in a series of this nature. It wasn’t a tour for the dazzling finishers out wide – although Cheslin Kolbe certainly made his chance count in the decider.

Suffocating defence trumped ambitious attack, and the gain-line heroes shaped the flow and ultimately the outcome of the series.

Tom Curry may lament a couple of mistakes that cost his side, but he was physical and disruptive across the three Tests and certainly enhanced his reputation as one of the best flankers in the world.

Robbie Henshaw was combative in the face of an almighty South African onslaught in midfield. Maro Itoje influenced the game at the lineout as well as at the collisions – marrying intelligence with unrelenting physicality.

That said, the biggest and most effective bullies wore green and gold jerseys. Eben Etzebeth was at his belligerent best, Franco Mostert thrived in a starting capacity at No 5 and later at blindside flank, while Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am showed why they are the best centre pairing in the world.

Substance equals style

The Boks were criticised for favouring a ‘boring’ style of rugby in the lead-up to the series – and indeed several times during the series itself. Ultimately their approach yielded the desired result, and also ensured that they outscored the Lions by four tries to two over the course of the three Tests.

As was the case at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Boks favoured a game plan that relied on physical defence and accurate kicking and contesting. They weren’t at their best in this series – due to Covid-19 disruptions and the absence of several injured players – yet they managed to implement their strategy to telling effect.

The Lions created opportunities in the third Test and there’s little doubt that Finn Russell sparked the attack to life. Russell replaced the injured Dan Biggar in the 11th minute and produced a series of inside passes that troubled the Bok defence, as well as a clever cross-kick that initiated an attack in the wider channels.

It’s tempting to ask how different this series may have been had Russell been fit and available for the first two Tests. His attacking and kicking game might have forced the Boks to revise their entire strategy.

Then again, one could also ask how Vermeulen might have bolstered the Boks, or how Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk might have strengthened the side for the decider if they were passed fit.

We won’t miss empty stadiums

Some of us have been privileged to attend matches in South Africa despite the Covid-19 restrictions and ban on mass gatherings. While the rugby has been compelling, live sport just isn’t the same without a crowd to provide the atmosphere, and ultimately an added layer of significance.

Kolisi and his players often spoke about giving a country in crisis some hope via a series of inspirational performances. It’s a shame that these matches could not be staged in front of big, diverse crowds, and that the unique South African rugby community could not come together to celebrate and forget their troubles, albeit for a little while.

Mist settles over an empty Cape Town Stadium (AFP/Getty Images)

The Boks are yet to play in front of a crowd since winning the 2019 World Cup. They haven’t played a Test at home with fans since beating Argentina in Pretoria on the eve of that global tournament – almost two years ago.

It’s also a shame that the recent series was bereft of Lions fans. It’s crazy to think that South Africa will have to wait another 12 years to play host to the last great tour in rugby.

A triumph in isolation

Many have suggested that this series should have been postponed until 2022 to allow for a more traditional tour to play out in front of capacity crowds. It’s believed that individual nations with their sights firmly set on preparing for the 2023 World Cup were opposed to the idea.

For better or worse, the tour has been completed. There were several moments, however, where it was in danger of being called off.

To say that the tour was thrown into chaos in the opening fortnight would be putting it lightly. Covid swept through the South African camp and forced the Boks to cancel their second Test against Georgia. The Lions’ preparations were disrupted after a number of players and coaches had to isolate. A second fixture against the Sharks was hastily organised to replace a cancelled match against the Covid-hit Bulls.

Morné Steyn and the Lions

The Lions in a huddle after the series defeat (Getty Images)

Violent protests swept across parts of Gauteng while the teams attempted to prepare within their bio-secure bubbles. After both squads relocated to Cape Town, it was confirmed that all three Tests would be staged in the Mother City, which was yet to experience a third-wave of Covid infections.

It’s worth reflecting on all of these concerns – and indeed the sacrifices made by both sets of players and coaches while operating within their respective bubbles – when assessing the series as a whole.

The Lions, as well as the Boks, should be proud of the way they combatted these unprecedented challenges and still managed to put on a compelling show. This is but one of the reasons why the 2021 tour should never be forgotten.

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