Lions in SA

Div keeps heat on himself

2009-07-04 18:52
Boks win Lions series (Gallo)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Considering the extent of the Springbok defeat at Coca-Cola Park, it is worth speculating over whether coach Peter de Villiers and company are regretting making the wholesale changes they did for the final Test against the British and Irish Lions.

After all, a home reverse for the World Cup champions by 28-9 and three tries to nil, at a venue normally such a talismanic one for the Boks, deserves a strenuous post mortem – dead-rubber situation or not.

But let's start with the positive: the way the Lions played on Saturday, in so inspiringly staving off a maiden clean sweep of defeats against South Africa, arguably also served as an indicator that just winning the series 2-1 was a meritorious outcome for John Smit's team.

At the same time, the Boks missed out – and then some, actually – on proving to these tourists and the broader world that they genuinely deserved the winter spoils against Paul O'Connell's never-say-die troops.

Instead the series probably ends with one unpalatable but pertinent observation, I think: that over the course of 240 minutes of bruising and often captivating Test rugby, the Lions actually commanded the greater share of front-foot status.

South African supporters, indeed, were left deeply grateful to Smit and his still strong pool of street-wise 2007 World Cup winners for winning the key points, as it were.

But this is where De Villiers, already so under focus of late because of his disturbingly eccentric public persona, must come under the microscope anew, for there is a case for saying Springbok rugby has lurched backwards a little in the subsequent two years.

Of course he would be entitled to launch a spirited defence that the fate of the first Lions series here in 12 years was done and dusted before Johannesburg, and that a heartbreaking, shock 2-1 reverse on the prior occasion has been reversed.

Indeed, some parallels with 1997 are quite remarkable. On that occasion the Lions, like the Boks now, went 2-0 up when it might conceivably have been the other way around entirely.

And, just as South Africa saved some face at the very same Ellis Park with a 35-16 win in the final Test, here it was the tourists’ turn to prevail, and by an identical 19-point margin.

Springbok fans, of course, demand wins from their supposed juggernaut every time they run out and, after all the "what ifs" and general whingeing in the British press, in particular, after the Lions' last-gasp defeat at Loftus, this was supposed to be the occasion where the Boks would put their supremacy beyond doubt. Ouch!

De Villiers may also point to the fact that he fielded a team a fair way shy of first-choice, either because of enforced absences or his own controversial decision to give starts – and this despite the personal pressure he is under – to several less experienced squad members.

The harsh truth was that some of his rookies, and Jongi Nokwe in particular, were rather quickly submerged by the take-no-prisoners occasion.

Some egos, and not just junior ones, took a battering and fears that our depth is perhaps not what it is quite cut out to be took root – remember that this was also a Lions combination bereft of several very influential names on the day themselves.

And yet they bossed the park all too imperiously, giving South Africa a master-class in ball protection, primary possession and sometimes also creative and delightful running angles on attack.

Their defence was also brilliantly organised and muscular, with turnovers secured at particularly timely moments that would often lead to an avalanche of gung-ho Lions high fives.

It wasn't unrelentingly grim for the Boks; there was a stint after half-time, and aided by the entry to the fray of a proven trench-fighter like Bismarck du Plessis, when it looked as if a turnaround was not completely beyond them.

But then Ugo Monye landed a "death" punch by intercepting a skip pass from Wynand Olivier that had so nearly found Zane Kirchner's fingertips for a likely score and instead ensuring a seven-pointer at the other end of the pitch in the 54th minute.

So it was 22-6 at that stage and basically goodnight nurse, especially as rattled home players started to get involved in silly niggle and incur stiff punishment from that old bogey-man whistler Stuart Dickinson.

Champagne may well have been the rightful order for the series-winning home side afterwards, but it is hard to escape a suspicion that to certain Boks it may have tasted a wee bit flat.

De Villiers has some explaining to do for this humbling. Will he do it coherently and graciously?

And just how much has the Lions tour, with its starkly unticked home boxes in some departments, raised the temperature for him to deliver the Tri-Nations, steeper task as it now appears?

The answer is blowing in a pretty tempestuous wind.


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