There were reasons to believe the Lions tour would end in tears, but it was hard to imagine that they would be quite so filled by such a toxic combination of rage and disgust. This is only an overwrought sentiment if you believe that it is acceptable anywhere in international sport, even among its very dregs, its sleaziest corners, to allow a player to remain on the field after a psychopathic act that caused him to defile everything and everyone he subsequently touched.
Schalk Burger happens to be an outstanding flanker, the winner of 50 caps and, no, perhaps he isn't Hannibal Lecter, but if seeking out and gouging the eye of an opponent not much more than half your size who is lying on his back at the time is not evidence of psychopathic behaviour, not stripped of all conscience or awareness of consequences, it is hard to know what is.
The world saw Burger do this and so did a touch judge, who behaved admirably in all but the uttering of a sentence, which should haunt him and the rest of the game until another such outrage comes along, but of course won't. The offending words of advice to the referee were: "At least a yellow card."
What do you have to do to stitch on a red card? It is maybe just a little too easy to heap all the blame on the perceived moral cowardice of French referee Christophe Berdos, who settled for that least possible punishment for reasons he alone knows but at which we can only speculate, because surely there is nothing logical, or moral, to support his decision.
No doubt he was aware that to reduce the Springboks to 14 men so early in the Boer temple of Loftus Versfeld would have made him the least popular man on the highveld – and bring serious imbalance to a much anticipated Test match. Whatever the reason, Berdos failed both the game and himself, but then how seriously did he let down a rugby world which, like it or not, sees some degree of institutionalised violence as an integral part of the game's appeal?
Here we wade into rugby's moral vacuum. The cavern was dug even deeper by the South African coach, Peter de Villiers, whose appointment many saw as having limited virtue beyond an affirmation of a new South Africa – and a new South African rugby where skin colour, theoretically but not practically, as we saw in his landing the job, was no longer of significance. But then after Saturday what has De Villiers come to represent? Is it a bold new day for South African rugby or, in his sickening dismissal of the significance of Burger's behaviour, a tolerance of some of the worst sins of rugby's past and present?
Here was De Villiers on the Burger affair: "I don't think he should have been carded at all. If you dissect the whole game you will see yellow cards that were missed. This is sport. This is what it is all about. People have their opinions and we will honour whatever is decided, but we don't have a problem with it." Not least shocking is the idea that the South African rugby authorities will fail to indicate that they have a problem with a coach capable of such a statement.
No doubt the Lions did not behave entirely in the way of the angels and it is difficult to argue with the suggestion that Brian O'Driscoll might have received 10 minutes in the sin bin if he hadn't already consigned himself for a stint in La-La land with a hit on Danie Rossouw that did not seem to be distinguished by any obvious attempt at a legal tackle. O'Driscoll has had a magnificent tour and fully vindicated those who said how dull it was of the selectors to hand the captaincy to his Irish team-mate Paul O'Connell. But then in the Rossouw matter he crossed the line, albeit out in the open as a full-blown hit man, not some big snake lumbering in the grass. Lawrence Dallaglio described the collision as awesome, and so it was. But legal? Almost certainly not.
The Test was certainly thrilling if you could get the stench of Burger out of your nostrils and it confirmed the belief sown in Durban the week before that, as a force of imagination and style, the Lions had had no reason to be sheepish in Pretoria.
And nor were they, with inspiring performances from Rob Kearney at the back and Simon Shaw almost everywhere. We know all about the virtues of the world champions and their victory, while cruel on the Lions, was another example of a superior competitive streak. However, if ever a triumph demanded a huge asterisk it was this one. Whatever anyone did, it was contaminated by the action of Burger.
The posturing of Bakkies Botha was in a different category but it was also a travesty of sportsmanship, a leering, bully-boy performance that fully justified his disciplinary citing alongside Burger.
So what happens to the Lions now? They go to Johannesburg no doubt in search of a little revenge, but what they will not be able to dislodge is the idea that perhaps the very concept of their existence is all played out. They went to South Africa insufficiently rested, prepared and respected. They were obliged to knock over second-rate, if sometimes vicious, opposition, while the cream of the world champions rested up for their visits to the big stages.
The impression that the current Lions are the remnants of a once great tradition can only be underlined by the fact that for a second successive tour they go into the final game with nothing to play for but their pride.
Players like O'Driscoll and Stephen Jones deserve something more than such long-odds experience. If the Lions are to live, and perhaps roar again, they have to be once more regarded as an adornment of rugby rather than an inconvenience, albeit a money-spinning one.
As it was, in Pretoria they were the victims of an appalling mugging. A great Test? Maybe in some respects but, still, pass one of those aerosols that sweeten the air.Reuse content