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Lots of Lions regrets but Boks deserving winners of strange series

A tense and dramatic finale in Cape Town saw the 2021 tour end on a high.

Cheslin Kolbe with the Lions series trophy.
Cheslin Kolbe with the Lions series trophy.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, it was never going to be like Lions tours that have come before.

So many of our images and memories of great Lions moments feature the red army of fans. ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’ in 2001 or ‘Oh, Maro Itoje’ in 2017 were the soundtracks delivered by travelling supporters and ex-pats in unison.

There was none of that this time around, no visits to local schools and clubs, no entertaining photos of the Lions taking their focus off rugby with excursions on their days off. 

To be fair, it was something of an achievement to pull off a three-Test series when the tour looked doomed at one stage but it is still justifiable to wonder whether it should have gone ahead at all.

The hope was that thrilling rugby would make everything worthwhile and though last night’s decider was remarkably tense and had plenty of thrills, it seems unlikely that 2021 will be remembered anywhere near as fondly as, say, 2009 – when the Lions lost the series but the games truly captured the imagination of rugby fans around the world.

Lions boss Warren Gatland is flying back home to New Zealand today, with a 14-day hotel quarantine awaiting him. As he reflects on this series, it will be hard not to have regrets.

Last night, he pointed to a missed two-on-one where Liam Williams didn’t pass to Josh Adams in the first half of the Lions’ 19-16 defeat and also the dropped high ball from Finn Russell that gave the Boks possession to grab their match-winning penalty.

robbie-henshaw-tackled-by-damian-de-allende-and-marco-van-staden Robbie Henshaw was outstanding for the Lions in the Tests. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The narrow margins went against the Lions but there’s little doubt that the Springboks deserved their series success. The tourists could only muster two tries in the three Tests, both from the maul, whereas the Boks scored four and had the classier attacking moments.

Cheslin Kolbe’s scintillating try last night was a typical one for the Boks, who are so lethal in transition. Their defence, kicking game, and set-piece were also largely superb over the last three weekends and just as crucial in them emerging victorious.

The better individual performances were also on their side – the likes of Damian de Allende, Eben Etzebeth, Lukhanyo Am, Franco Mostert, and captain Siya Kolisi – although the Lions had standouts such as Robbie Henshaw, who is one of the best in the game now.

Tactically, Gatland and his assistant coaches like attack specialist Gregor Townsend might feel they could have been more daring in the first two Tests, with early substitute Russell showing that the Boks defence can be stretched and broken with ball in hand last night. That said, playing against the oppressive South African defence is a unique challenge that none of us outside the arena can truly appreciate.

For many of the Lions matchday 23, last night will have been their final chance to play in the famous red shirt, including captain and 12-Test cap legend Alun Wyn Jones.

Others like Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith – who Warren Gatland says will be a “superstar” of the sport – will almost certainly be involved again in 2025 for the tour of Australia barring injury. 

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While obviously disappointed about the outcome of the series, the Lions will fly home today with glee, having been away from their families and friends for eight weeks in many cases. It has been a challenging time for them on a personal level with so little to do in South Africa.

felix-jones Felix Jones is an influential figure in the Boks' set-up. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Boks, meanwhile, turn their attention to the Rugby Championship which kicks off next weekend as they host Argentina.

With a World Cup and now a Lions series in the bag, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber would love to continue the impressive success.

There’s no doubt that Irishman Felix Jones will also continue to be a key part of the coaching staff as he adds to his reputation as a superb young coach who only just turned 34.

This Lions series didn’t do it for everyone tuning in from outside the bubbles in South Africa but the sheer tension of the final Test and the clear elation the Boks players felt at winning underlined that it remains a unique part of the sport.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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