|Injuries ruined any chance for the Lions
||[Jun. 29th, 2009|11:54 am]
South Africa produced a miserably disappointing performance of just 18 minutes of rugby in Pretoria on Saturday. Yet it was enough to defeat the Lions and clinch the Test series.
Why? Because the extra gear the world champions eventually found, which is clearly within their capacity, was enough to overturn 55 minutes of Lions ascendancy in the game. That extra gear put them on a level beyond the range of this modest Lions side.
The reasons why the Lions have failed in this series are clear. With their best 15 players, they have been competitive. But once injuries have eliminated some of those key performers, the replacements just haven't been good enough to plunge into the fray against the powerful if erratic Springboks.
On Saturday, the loss of both props, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, who had done sterling work in overturning the Springboks' 1st Test scrummage supremacy, was catastrophic for the Lions. That they both departed after only five minutes of the second half was a tragedy.
Yet worse was to follow with Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts also being forced off. The sad failing of Ronan O'Gara as a replacement underlined the chasm that exists between the 15 top men of these Lions and the remainder.
The likely absence of most if not all of that quartet in the final Test in Johannesburg this Saturday leaves the Lions highly vulnerable. They will do well to avoid a heavy defeat, never mind the seemingly inevitable 3-0 series whitewash.
None of this surprises those from the northern hemisphere who deal in facts and present day realities, not fantasy. The emotional language talked in too many quarters about these Lions and their prospects fuelled a completely unrealistic expectation. What we have seen was predictable. For the cruellest fact of all is that the Springboks haven't even had to play well to win the series at a canter.
In Durban, the ‘Boks played for 50 minutes before falling apart, undone by their own coach's lunatic whims. At Pretoria, the hosts produced only 18 minutes of play that resembled that of world champions. It was still enough.
These Lions have been exposed, albeit only in flashes, to the physical intensity, the dynamism and potential pace of the game in the southern hemisphere. It has found them wanting, as it was always likely to do. The important thing is whether the lessons will be learned from the experience.
I don't believe it is appropriate to heap blame on the Lions coaching staff. Yes, they made some absurd decisions, like omitting England flanker Tom Croft from the original 37 man squad. Croft has been one of the stars of this tour and Rob Kearney was in a similar class at Pretoria. Young players like these and Welsh centre Jamie Roberts will have learned invaluable lessons from the trip and will be better for that.
Frankly, Ian McGeechan and his coaches have worked minor wonders to make a disparate group of players competitive against a world champion side, around eight of which have been together since 2004. To do that in the space of a few short weeks is near miraculous. As McGeechan said on Saturday night "We haven't had the rub of the green. Had we done so, we could have been leaving here 2-up in the series."
They could, but the Lions shouldn't fool themselves. Had the Springboks not been so poor for much of the time, had they played with the real authority of world champions, the Lions would have been blown out of sight. Courage and bravery, qualities the Lions have had in abundance, are not enough at this level. You need at least six or seven players of the quality of an O'Driscoll. Alas, the Lions have had none apart from the Irishman.
Saturday's Test was heavily influenced by the decision of French referee Christophe Berdos not to red card Schalk Burger for attacking the eyes of Luke Fitzgerald. He bottled it because it was the first minute. A braver referee would have imposed the ultimate penalty and that could have altered the whole game and perhaps the series.
Ironic, then, that I warned before the tour began the Lions were dicing with danger in insisting on neutral, but inferior, referees for the Test series. That policy came home to haunt them on Saturday.