5 things we learned from the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa

Warren Gatland’s team lost the series after winning the first match.

Duncan Bech
Sunday 08 August 2021 14:09
The Lions tour ended in disappointment for Warren Gatland’s team (Steve Haag/PA)
The Lions tour ended in disappointment for Warren Gatland’s team (Steve Haag/PA)

The British and Irish Lions will return home nursing the disappointment of a 2-1 series defeat by South Africa sealed with a 19-16 loss at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.

Here the PA news agency examines five things we learned from the series.

Regrets, regrets, regrets

Everywhere the Lions and Warren Gatland look they will see regrets. Regret that they failed to capitalise after going 1-0 up in the series, regret that a strong first half in the second Test turned into a collapse and regret that they were unable to make the most of the chances created in the decider. Selection and tactics will also gnaw away over the coming weeks. As Finn Russell directed operations in the final Test, inspiring the Lions to comfortably their best rugby of the whole event, it became clear that there was a better option than trading blows with South Africa.

The jigsaw falls into place

Unfortunately for the Lions, they alighted upon their strongest backline at the climax to the tour. Russell was not available for the first two Tests because of a torn Achilles, but when he replaced the injured Dan Biggar in the 11th minute the Lions were transformed as an attacking force. Outside him Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw strengthened the Lions’ midfield in all respects and if there was a fourth instalment of the series then surely Liam Williams, Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe would have remained in place.

Gatland still the man

Warren Gatland has left the door open to continue as Lions head coach (Steve Haag/PA)

For all the sense of an opportunity missed, Gatland has earned the right to lead the next tour to Australia in 2025, if he still has the appetite. The Lions faced unprecedented challenges, cooped up in a bubble environment for eight weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic and hampered by a shorter tour with fewer warm-up games. Yet despite the adversity, Gatland succeeded in uniting four rival nations and went desperately close to preserving his unbeaten record as Lions head coach. In the professional era, no one understands the tourists like the Kiwi.

Morne the Lions slayer

Who writes Morne Steyn’s scripts? When the 37-year-old was named on the bench for the final Test, the wheels were set in motion for another dramatic intervention from the man whose penalty secured the Springboks the 2009 series. But the stars still needed to align for Steyn, who was playing his first Test for five years, to reprise his role as the Lions’ tormentor in chief. When the moment came with a minute left, he coolly stepped up to complete the circle on 12 years ago. It may be his last act for South Africa, but what an imprint he has left on their history.

The mighty Boks

South Africa have added a series victory over the Lions to their world title (Steve Haag/PA)

There have been better world champions than Rassie Erasmus’ South Africa, but none have matched their determination. Remarkably, given the stage of the season, the Lions entered the final Test with a clean bill of health – but the Springboks had no such luck. World Cup finalists Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman were ruled out for the entire series and the influential Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk went down for the final Test, in which Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth were in varying degrees of discomfort after taking blows. Somehow they clung on, aided by the Lions’ profligacy, to grind out a victory founded on resilience.