Lions Tour 2021: Assessing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
A controversial, drama-filled Lions Tour 2021 ended yesterday; it’s time to reflect.
The British and Irish Lions Tour 2021 always promised mystery and drama. With Covid 19 cases surging in South Africa, many experts questioned the viability of the tour. We already knew that these games would get played with no fans in attendance. Then, when outbreaks occurred within the South Africa camp and their provincial clubs, the Lions Tour 2021 faced more questions.
Nevertheless, SA Rugby and The Lions soldiered on with the itinerary. Hefty TV rights fees from Sky and Supersport, as well as pressure from sponsors, clearly played a factor. As did the players’ desire; Lions tours are once every four years; for the Springboks, they’re once every 12 years. It is a golden opportunity for all to become legends. Siya Kolisi’s Springboks wanted to join John Smit’s 2007-09 vintage as world champions and Lions series winners; meanwhile, Warren Gatland wanted redemption after THAT test match in 2009.
Springbok Rust, as the Lions Roar
The Lions Tour 2021 started with a farewell game at Murrayfield in Scotland. The Lions beat a spirited Japanese side in a match overshadowed by Alun Wyn Jones’ injury. The tour captain got ruled out before making a superhuman recovery three weeks later from a dislocated shoulder. He rejoined the squad in South Africa to take his place as the influential leader.
The Lions won all but one of their warm-up matches on tour; although calling a brutal battle against South Africa A, a ‘warmup’ is a tad harsh. The Lions triumphed in the other four games against the domestic South African sides; meanwhile, South Africa needed to deal with a Covid outbreak and significant rust. Due to the pandemic, the ‘Boks hadn’t played a single game in 2020; in fact, their last game was the 2019 World Cup final. Two test matches against the minnows of Georgia got plagued by virus outbreaks; South Africa came into the three-match series undercooked. The Lions played more games, and it showed in game one.
A cagey first half in the first test did little to settle anyone’s nerves. The second half, however, firmly tilted the balance towards the Lions. An ill-disciplined display in defence from South Africa saw them cede plenty of penalties. With Dan Biggar at his kicking best, the Lions snatched game one 22-17. The Lions promised that they’d match the physicality and skullduggery of the South Africans; in the first test, they beat the Springboks at their own game. The Lions prepared better.
We’re Headed for a Decider
The Lions Tour 2021 hit a central junction point in the second test. Warren Gatland’s team came into the game at Cape Town, standing on the verge of a series victory. For 35 minutes, the Lions gave South Africa a rugby runaround. They looked sharper, smoother, and better coached than their Springbok counterparts. Sadly, the Lions could only muster nine points; the ‘Boks knew they were up against it. Their reaction underlined why they are the world champions. South Africa launched a second-half blitzkrieg, and the Lions had no answers. Try’s from Lukhanyo Am, and Makazole Mapimpi accelerated the Springboks second-half surge. Whatever Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber said at half-time, it worked. South Africa crushed the Lions 27-9. It was a ruthless display of power, ferocity, and finishing. The world champions teed up a series decider.
Morne Steyn, and More Heartbreak for the Lions
It all came down to this, a third test, a date with destiny, and a chance for Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones to scratch a 12-year itch. A miserable winter’s day in Cape Town greeted the teams. What unfolded was a tense, often turgid affair as both teams toiled in a grueling battle. At times the test match resembled trench warfare. But, silky playmaker Finn Russell still got opportunities to shine for the Lions at fly-half. The Lions rolled over the Springboks in the 18th minute to take an early lead. They displayed serious power against world Rugby bully boys.
South Africa fly-half Handre Pollard struggled in the awful conditions from the kicking tee. South Africa left plenty of points on the field. Despite the kicking woes, the Lions knew that South Africa would come back. The ‘Boks continued with their high-kicking game; a controversial collision and ricochet let the ball bounce to fullback Willie Le Roux. The former Wasp setup fleet-footed Cheslin Kolbe, who sidestepped his way to the try line.
The teams re-engaged in trench warfare, and they traded penalties. Pollard’s kicking troubles got him hooked for veteran fly-half Morne Steyn. The legendary place-kicker was ice-cold, so was Finn Russell for the Lions. The Scot nailed a tricky kick on the 74th minute to tie the game. The Lions didn’t wish to draw the series as they did in New Zealand; they played for the win. Living on the edge comes with consequences, and in the 78th minute, the referee blew his whistle and gave South Africa a penalty. Just as he did in 2009, Steyn split the uprights to give South Africa the series win. The Lions lost a game they controlled for 60 minutes; the 12-year wait for redemption resulted in bitter heartbreak.
Best Players From the Lions Tour 2021
Lions series can define players’ legacies. More of the same happened in the Lions Tour 2021. The series was almost certainly the end of Alun Wyn Jones’ legendary career in the red jersey. After fighting back from a devastating injury, Wyn Jones showed all his skill and leadership in the most brutal battle. Enigmatic fly-half Finn Russell highlighted his talent in the third test match. The controversial, erratic playmaker displayed bravery, excellent game awareness, and skill as he took the game to the South Africans.
The centre combination of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am came alive for the Springboks, particularly in the second and third tests. The powerful pairing was never afraid to take the ball to the line and crash over tacklers to gain forward momentum. The often-underrated second-row forward Lood De Jager shone; his courage, will, and lineout presence provided South Africa with the platform. One can say the same about Maro Itoje. The Saracen and England player will almost certainly captain the Lions one day. He never took a backward step in the face of adversity while he was constantly menacing at the breakdown.
Tactically, Warren Gatland got it wrong. It is hard to criticise a coach who is unbeaten as a Lions coach; however, his insistence on playing the Welsh-style of physical Rugby played into South Africa’s hands. The Lions owned the more talented players; they, unfortunately, had minimal opportunity to get into games due to the rigid style of play.
The Springboks thrive when the game devolves into an arm-wrestle. They don’t wish to get dragged into an end-to-end free-running game. The Lions attempted to play off one phase and crash the ball up the middle. That is meat-and-drink for the South Africans. The ‘Boks played to their strengths of kicking the ball, playing for territory, and relying on ferocious defence. The Lions fell into their trap; once South Africa found their rhythm, the Lions never looked on top.
Final Conclusions From Lions Tour 2021
Despite all the Covid issues, both parties managed to get the series completed. That is a testament to the staff on each side that needed to live in bubbles away from home for so long. Ultimately, that may be the only positive. The lack of fans negatively impacted the series. Lions tours are renowned for the carnival-like atmosphere they generate. The lack of that hurt all the games.
Furthermore, the continual pressure from South Africa Rugby director Rassie Erasmus did seem to affect the officials. Mind games in the press didn’t surprise anyone; their impact on the refereeing was disappointing, though. Overall, the drama and competitive action of the games was good, but the Lions Tour 2021 didn’t further the cause of the Lions. With the Olympics in full flow, the series got overshadowed.
Lions Tour 2025, the tour down under
The Lion’s head down under to Australia in four years. The Lions defeated the Wallabies in 2013. But there are overriding issues regarding the tour. Wallabies Rugby is at rock bottom. Australia is falling out of love with Rugby Union, and it doesn’t look like it will change soon. And the Lions are starting to get marginalised in world Rugby. As the club game becomes more and more lucrative, and international competition is all-powerful. Clubs and countries are reluctant to release their players for Lions tours. Both the Wallabies and Lions are endangered species in the Rugby landscape. Will the 2025 series be a lowly affair, or can the Lions stay relevant in a changing world.
What a Tour. We can’t believe it’s over.
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) August 8, 2021
We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Lions Tour 2021: Assessing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ What was your favourite moment from the Lions Tour 2021? Who was your player of the tournament? Let us know!
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