COVID-19 makes no exceptions and gives nobody a free pass to immunity. Hard as it has tried to state a special case, elite sport has been a victim of the pandemic.
Over the next few weeks, rounds of European club competition will likely have to be abandoned.
But the highest profile rugby casualty of all would be the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, scheduled for the start of July.
Lions tours are the biggest money-spinners in the game for the host unions. The Australian Rugby Union banked an estimated $AUD70 million from the 2013 tour. Four years later, the visit to New Zealand was calculated to contribute a massive $NZD194 million to the country’s GDP, while the NZRFU recorded an unprecedented $NZD33.4 million profit for the year on the back of the three-Test series.
30,000 Lions travelling supporters would be expected to visit the Republic for the eight-match tour in July. Without the huge cash injection into the economy that they bring, South African rugby will enter a drought.
Having passed on the 2020 Rugby Championship, the Springboks will have played no Test matches for 20 months even if the Lions do arrive on time. Without them, the involuntary quarantine will go on for two years.
There are some contingency plans being projected as alternatives if the tour is cancelled. Postponing the tour by 12 months is one option, although England and Ireland are unlikely to cancel their existing appointments in Australia and New Zealand respectively in order to accommodate the Lions. Playing the games in empty stadia is another, but then there would be no paying customers.
The difficulty of fitting a Lions tour into a crowded four-year World Cup cycle, and the increasing demands of domestic club competition in England and France, has already brought the place of those tours within the global calendar into question. COVID-19 may be the straw that breaks a fragile camel’s back.
In pure rugby terms, the expectation of a titanic series between a strong northern hemisphere representative side and the current World champions is mouth-watering.
The last Lions tour of the Republic with the hosts as World Champions occurred in 2009. It was one of the most vivid and exciting Test series of the professional era. In particular, the cataclysmic clash in the second Test at Loftus Versfeld will long in the memory of all who saw it.
For that game, the Lions had decided to meet fire with fire after losing the first Test in Durban. Then they opted to pick a mobile tight five, with all-round footballers preferred to more physical, set-piece specialists.
In the old Northern Transvaal, the mindset changed and hardened. Matthew Rees replaced an undersized Lee Mears at hooker, while 135 kilos of Adam Jones, with 6’9 and 125 kilos of Bristolian beef in the shape of Simon Shaw behind him, powered up the tighthead side of the scrum.
One of the few benefits of the dearth of live sport during the pandemic in the UK has been the deep dive into Sky TV archives, and an examination of some of the great games of the past in more detail. The second Test of 2009 was given just such a treatment, and the commentary to the game provided by Paul O’Connell, Jamie Roberts and Jean de Villiers (who all played in it) is highly instructive. (It’s available on YouTube here for those in the UK.)
The commentary as a whole gives a point-by-point charter of how to beat the Boks – the Warren Gatland way. Given Gatland would be the head coach of the 2021 iteration of the Lions, that is handy information.
The first plank in the Lions’ playing philosophy was to keep the ball on the field whenever practicable. Their first exit kick to find touch occurred just before halftime, all of the rest were infield:
Bokke mastermind Fourie du Preez kicks high from halfway, and Lions fullback Rob Kearney turns to run it back immediately. There is no thought of a kick to touch.
On the following play, the Lions make their statement: they are going to make Bakkies Botha run and then run some more in defence, rather than let him crunch bodies in a telephone box:
Botha, Bismarck du Plessis and John Smith have only just got back onside when Tommy Bowe and Gethin Jenkins bypass them on the Lions right. The second scuffle of the game erupted shortly afterwards. The first had seen Schalk Burger sent from the field for ten minutes after an eye-gouge on Luke Fitzgerald.
As O’Connell comments, “The line-break came from us not kicking the ball out, which was a big Welsh [Gatland] policy. You don’t kick it to touch – which should be everybody’s policy against South Africa. Their lineout and lineout maul was so good… it was a tactic that really worked for us throughout the tour.”
Only a couple of minutes later, the Lions had scored their first try of the game:
With only one Springbok tight forward (Victor Matfield) able to make it around the corner of the ruck after the first phase from lineout, Simon Shaw makes positive metres on the carry and the Lions are able to isolate Bryan Habana on the following play.
“When you play against the Boks, it’s about physical confrontation – you have to match them at least,” said Jamie Roberts.
“So… we got quick ball off my ruck, then Simon Shaw – big man around the corner. At those two rucks the ruck-speed is very quick.”
“They beat our guys around the corner,” said Jean de Villiers.
“Then the momentum is very difficult to stop… There were a couple of poor decisions by the Boks [on defence]. Habana – missing the offload and the man; Frans Steyn backtracking and not making a tackle [on Kearney].”
South Africa came back into the game with a big statement via their set-piece, which had been such a strength in the first Test:
“We should not be letting them win the ball on the 15 [-metre line],” was O’Connell’s analysis.
“In this age, there is no team which would allow South Africa to win the ball on the 15m line [uncontested]. Then you have Fourie du Preez, who is brilliant at running those square lines and putting people through holes. He put Bryan Habana in for a try in the second half.
“It was a massive part of South Africa’s play back then, attacking the back of the lineout – attacking the seam between the back of the lineout and the backline ten metres away.”
As O’Connell says, it was not the only time in the game that du Preez was able to move away from a comfortable set-piece to create a try for the players outside him.
In the first period at least, the Lions scrum was better than competitive, reversing the irresistible momentum Tendai Mtawarira had built up in the first Test:
The Beast is under huge pressure from Adam Jones, who has split him away from du Plessis as the hooker’s left shoulder rises high into the thin Pretoria air:
“Adam Jones had come in at tighthead, but also Simon Shaw had come into the second row,” said O’Connell.
“I moved across [to scrum behind the loosehead], so Simon, who’s a much bigger man than me, was scrummaging behind Adam Jones. That made a difference to our scrum.”
By now, Shaw had well and truly got under the skin of big Bakkies, who could think of nothing better than to shove him out of the next lineout unceremoniously:
The climax to the Lions’ immensely physical first half attitude was also epitomised by the same player. First, he destroyed a Springbok maul from lineout:
Later, he led a counter-ruck to win back the ball immediately afterwards:
Unfortunately, this was the Lions’ last hurrah in the physical confrontation stakes. Within five minutes of the opening whistle in the second half, they had lost both their starting props to injury, and Botha was back doing what he did best at cleanout time:
In the first example, Bakkies drives out Adam Jones, and that was the end of the Hair Bear’s match with a dislocated right shoulder.
“Even though it was quite a brutal game, I thought the Bakkies Botha cleanout was one of the lesser incidents, but he got banned for a couple of weeks after that,” said de Villiers.
The loss of both props led to uncontested scrums, and that, in turn, handed du Preez the freedom of the scrum base, just as he had enjoyed the freedom of the lineout tail for JP Pietersen’s try:
“The effect of a non-contested scrum on this play is huge,” said Roberts.
“Fourie du Preez can get off the back of the scrum far quicker than our defending seven [David Wallace] … and he can get to first receiver and stick our defending ten [Stephen Jones] down… A brilliantly-executed play, but the influence of non-contested scrum was significant.”
Both Lions centres had been almost knocked out in collisions prior to the scrum, and both would have been off the field under current HIA regulations:
First Roberts is banged out of an attempted tackle on Pierre Spies, then Brian O’Driscoll reels away from a collision with Danie Rossouw. Both had left the field for good less than five minutes later.
The Lions were down to the bare bones, and it was left for Jaque Fourie to pick them clean for the Bokke with a superb finish:
The intensity of the Lions’ effort had evidently left a deep emotional scar on man of the match Simon Shaw:
The British and Irish Lions will be lucky to tour the Republic as planned this summer. The continuing effects of the pandemic are still too close to home, and it means the game as a whole will take another huge financial hit.
The impact on South African rugby will be severe. The 30,000 Lions supporters due to travel would have replenished the coffers of SARU for years to come, and boosted the tourist economy of the country in general. Now the Springbok players are staring down the barrel of two years of inactivity since their World Cup triumph in 2019.
Alongside with the 2001 trip to Australia, the 2009 visit to South Africa was probably the finest Lions tour of the professional era. The second Test in Pretoria best expressed the narrow margin between the sides and the fine balance between meeting physical confrontation head-on while playing to width.
The Lions kept their balance in the first half, but lost it in the second as they became drawn further and further into the physical battle with the Boks.
At the same time, it is easy to see many of the elements of the Gatland blueprint surviving the 12 years between tours: the will to keep the ball in play, move the big South Africans around the field and avoid kicking the ball back to a point of strength; and to hit quickly before moving the ball towards an edge, undermine the strong South African base at set-piece, and defuse the lineout drive.
Can the likes of Maro Itoje, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong match the efforts of Simon Shaw, Paul O’Connell and Adam Jones before them? It would be a great pity if we never get to find out the answer to that question.