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Lions crushed by a sense of regret

Owain Jones

The eyes. It’s often said they are a window into the soul. If we are then to judge the pain of that British & Irish Lions series loss by the reaction of Alun Wyn Jones, we can surmise that this result will leave mental scars long after the flesh wounds inflicted during battle heal. 

The four-year wait between tours allows the pain to fester, even to grow. All players talk about wanting to get back out on to the field as soon as humanly possible to right wrongs but, in a Lions jersey, that is logistically impossible, and for a clutch of elder statesmen, they know this is the end.

Jones and the stand-in captain and try-scorer on the day, Ken Owens fall into this category, so too Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar. To compound their World Cup defeats against the same opponents two years ago, this result will cut them to the core.

Lions squad
Alun Wyn Jones addresses the squad in the aftermath of the series loss (Photo by Phill Magakoe/via Getty Images)

For others like Maro Itoje, Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong, they will know Australia is well within their grasp, and for the bairns of the tour like Tom Curry, Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith, who was pointedly lauded by Warren Gatland in his post-match conference, a clutch of tours await should they realise their immense potential..

None of this will matter in the hours and days ahead, after the cordite from the fireworks has dissipated into the atmosphere above Table Mountain and the sponsors banners have been disassembled. Gatland has said he has two weeks of quarantine to ponder his options and a 12-year love affair with the Lions appears to be at an end. Indeed, he knows the speculation for his successor will start before his plane lands in New Zealand.

The touring side’s reputation has been forged on free-flowing, running rugby but like every product, its marketers play on the Lions’ glossy mane, not the attritional, high-pressure fare that can punctuate most Tests in the professional era.

This tour has been heavily criticised for its many shortcomings, but the fact it was played at all was a minor miracle. Those involved away from the spotlight deserve immense credit for making it happen and there were anxious moments early in the tour when you feared a Test series would be aborted in a country buckling under the weight of positive Covid cases. When emotions subside, most fans will recognise this was the least worst scenario. It is very easy, in hindsight, to lobby for the tour to be played in the UK, or to be postponed for the year, but both options were heavily flawed and mired in uncertainty when the 51-49 decisions could no long be delayed.

Another criticism thrown at the Lions was the poor standard of rugby. The touring side’s reputation has been forged on free-flowing, running rugby but like every product, its marketers play on the Lions’ glossy mane, not the attritional, high-pressure fare that can punctuate most Tests in the professional era. Again, South Africa’s brand of physical, percentage-driven rugby was blamed in some quarters but the reality is winning Test rugby at the very highest level is often down to pragmatic, low-risk rugby, where defences dominate and one-score games are commonplace. Rugby romanticism and nostalgia play havoc with the realities of winning Test-level rugby.

Marcus Smith Louis Rees-Zammit
Marcus Smith and Louis Rees-Zammit point to a bright future for the Lions (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

That said, the series was a difficult sell with only six tries and rugby finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Indeed, how can it empower a devil-may-care brand of rugby when a tribe of pedants scream blue murder from their keyboards at every ruling that doesn’t suit their side’s agenda. The game can’t have it both ways. There has to be flex and more feeling for the game, which is why it was refreshing to see Mattieu Raynal give Cheslin Kolbe’s try, despite Jones’ desperate protestations about a knock-on earlier in the play.

By the time Morné Steyn – remember him? – hoofed the ball into the empty stands, it was already two hours and six minutes since the kick-off. Rugby simply has to find a better balance between entertainment and convoluted law interpretations that is seeing the game disappearing up its muscular posterior. There is too much hand-wringing with the elongated TMO process and the referee should regain his authority as the only voice that truly matters. 

As the squad sink into their Castle beers in the coming days, regret will be the emotion that washes over them.

The navel gazing shouldn’t stop there. In any review, there has to be an acceptance that this series was a very poor advert for rugby and will have struggled to convert any new disciples to the game. Even worse, it could have turned casual supporters to chuck in the towel and take their passion elsewhere.

Talking of the fans, they were the missing ingredient that would have softened the forensic analysis on the games shortcomings. Had 55,000 fans packed out the Cape Town Stadium, with vibrant colours, a sea of red and partisan locals, the experience would have been enhanced tenfold. Supporters provide an instantaneous soundtrack to any game, as the momentum swings like a pendulum and we can’t have them back in stadiums quickly enough. 

Springboks win Lions Series
The Springboks have shown a knack for winning the big games (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As the squad sink into their Castle beers in the coming days, you sense regret will be the emotion that washes over them. How Liam Williams will rue not having the split-second vision to see a screaming Josh Adams outside him with acres of turf ahead of him. How Tom Curry will wince when replaying the moment he detached from a rumbling rolling maul and blocked Siya Kolisi to give away a penalty. Then there was the time Maro Itoje bolted towards the Springbok five-metre line only to be left isolated and Damian de Allende to clamp on to the ball, or the 5m lineout that Jones had pickpocketed from him. We could go on. Was the decision to go for the corner from stand-in skipper Conor Murray, deep into the second half, and not take the points too bold? The Lions will drive themselves mad if they go down that wormhole but a sense of acceptance will come in time.

Jones and Gatland were circumspect in the aftermath and talked about the pride shown by the players wearing the shirt. They silenced most fair-minded Springbok fans who were unable to bray that their world champions had rubbed the tourists faces into the turf for it was nothing of the sort. The Lions went toe to toe with the most physical side on earth until the final bell and lost only on the narrowest points decision. For that, they can take some solace.

As a squad, the Springboks were plainly lacking rugby but somehow found a way to win a series. It is a special group of players led by the scholarly Jacques Nienaber but emotionally driven by the charisma of Rassie Erasmus.

Credit must also go to the Springboks. They were desperate for the tour to take place on home soil and were plainly aggrieved to see Hamish McLennan, the ARU Chairman, flashing his green-and-gold knickerbockers at the Lions, as they offered to stage the series from under the noses of the rightful hosts. Sensitivity was needed throughout, as looters caused havoc in a politically-divided country and these societal issues put a game of rugby into perspective.

As a squad, the Springboks were plainly lacking rugby but somehow found a way to win a series. It is a special group of players led by the scholarly Jacques Nienaber but emotionally driven by the magnetic personality of Rassie Erasmus, who put his reputation on the line after the first Test to change the narrative and the course of the series. His actions were divisive and could have longer-lasting ramifications but if he does leave SA Rugby, he will be deified for his achievements in his homeland with his methods glossed over. That is the nature of sport.

As the tour is dissected, there will be much sabre rattling about the relevance of the tour in the professional era but there is no doubt, in this writer’s mind at least, that the 123-year-old organisation will be heading for Australia in 2025 in good health having navigated this most arduous of tours.

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