There is much excitement about the third and final Test in Cape Town this weekend, but the anticipation is not limited exclusively to the match. The world champions roared back against the famous touring side to level proceedings at one apiece and yet a clash of such magnitude feels to be playing second-fiddle to wider debate and damnation.
The Second Test was no great spectacle. The Lions made just 105m; South Africa 179m. There were 58 kicks from hand. With skyward eyes the players looked towards repeated high kicks like children around the bonfire but there were to be few on-field fireworks. After two weeks of fanned flames from both sides an open contest seldom emerged. Rugby can be a sport of great beauty but this was tempestuous, torpid and, above all, ugly.
It may not concern the Springboks who, as widely predicted, went back to their brilliant basics. Two moments of invention and incision from Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard may have created the tries but it was more the South African’s ruthless bombardment of a struggling backfield Lions’ defence that turned the screw after a stifling defensive performance.
The introduction of Lood De Jager, re-establishing a balance titled towards physical and lineout dominance in the back five of the forwards, was a key moment – from then onwards it was a mauling in every sense. It was an emphatic response.
“We were well aware of what they were going to improve on,” reflected Alun Wyn Jones, wearing the wounds of war to his nose and ear. “They probably did to us what we wanted to do to them.
“They tried to do it last week, they probably just did it better. Our lack of maintaining possession in key areas and giving away penalties gave them a roll-on down the field. You can’t do that against any team, let alone the Springboks.”
Head coach Warren Gatland decried a lack of “tempo”, suggesting that the South Africans had been clever and successful in slowing the game down. Sixty-three minutes of real time elapsed between the whistles to commence and close the opening half. If the skill, passion and sacrifice at the sevens in Tokyo had been rugby at somewhere near its best, then this had been rugby at somewhere near its worst.
This was not quite an encounter to match the bloodbath of Durban 12 years ago – it most certainly did not reproduce its drama – but there were times when it felt like some sort of needlessly long, grim police procedure, as referee Ben O’Keeffe and television match official Marius Jonker sorted squabbles and considered a succession of decisions. The officials did well to (just about) keep a lid on a game ever-bubbling and at several points appearing set to boil over.
There have been allegations since that it did. The citing commissioner may have a close look at the placement of Maro Itoje’s knee across the neck of a fallen player; the Lions may point to Faf De Klerk’s tackle on Conor Murray that drew a curiously brief second viewing from O’Keeffe, and the failure to dismiss Cheslin Kolbe after his clumsy challenge on a leaping Murray.
Most damning of all might be an image showing Stuart Hogg appearing to bite Willie Le Roux’s arm in one of the scuffles that punctuated the first half, denied emphatically by the full-back.
“Following speculation that has surfaced online, I would like to categorically deny any foul play in last night’s game,” a statement from Hogg read. “I would never bite an opponent and I am annoyed and upset by this unsubstantiated accusation. I’ve always been proud of playing rugby in the spirit of the game.
“Respect to the Springboks for their deserved win yesterday. The squad is hurting after last night’s defeat, but it’s all to play for this week. It’s going to be a cup final and everyone’s going to be up for it.”
It has been an unedifying few days and neither side has covered themselves in glory. One can only wonder what more mud-slinging may await in the next six days.
This is the first time in recent memory that a series between South Africa and the Lions has gone to a winner-takes-all decider. The indications at full-time were that Gatland will look at changes. The back-three is in need of a remodel and after two intensely physical tests, the forward pack may also be structured slightly differently. Gatland must manage those brought in from the bubble to supplement his side after a couple of weeks off.
The temptation to try something more adventurous having been so thoroughly beaten is there – Sam Simmonds and Finn Russell, if fit, may be prominent in discussion. As Gatland put it: “We have got lots of options in terms of bringing in guys to give us some more energy and momentum.”
“Gats is notorious for making changes,” added Jones. “There has been a lot said about the wounded Springboks – the Lions have taken a dent today and we need to put it right.”
After a tour the South Africans have less to consider, one major returnee aside – Duane Vermeulen is back in selection contention sooner than anticipated after ankle surgery. The number eight is quite the figure to stride back in, be it from the start or on the bench. There is plenty left to be said, and done, as a series messier than Jackson Pollock’s easel on and off the field gets a deciding, defining contest that it perhaps does not deserve.
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