Allan Massie: Last week was dreadful - this is the Lions’ last chance to show all that is best in rugby
Most boring days are soon forgotten. Sometimes however they stick in the gullet. Two of the most tedious matches I recall at Murrayfield were the infamous 111 lineout Welsh match in 1963 and the 1988 Calcutta Cup which was so tedious that long before the end I stopped caring about the result.
But, sadly, the second Test in Cape Town last week ran them both close, and not only because the first half lasted for 63 minutes. I doubt if the ball was in play for more than ten of these minutes. Lord knows (unless He got bored keeping count) how few of these minutes actually saw rugby being played and how many were taken up with conversations between the TMO, the referee and his assistants. It was absurd. Something surely must be done to curb this. When, for instance, it’s a question of foul play that has been whistled up by the referee, he should decode for himself without reference to the TMO. Any other foul play – and indeed this incident itself – might be dealt with subsequently by the citing commissioner.
Another cause for delay is the time for discussion and planning which referees grant the team due to throw the ball into the lineout. The forwards gather 20 yards away from the lineout, plot their next move, then advance slowly to the mark. They have spent a minute or even more in this palaver, taking a good rest at the same time. Why do referees allow this? The law is brief and clear: penalty for delaying the lineout: a free kick. This law, like others, is ignored. Why?
Setting aside the delays, the Lions tactics were depressing. They collaborated with the Springboks in the power game. It’s odds against beating South Africa by playing like South Africa. The All Blacks don’t do so. They seek to play the game fast, keeping the ball moving, spreading it wide, varying their kicking game, always asking different questions. They beat South Africa more often than not, and do so by refusing to play the sort of game with which their opponents are comfortable. On Saturday Dan Biggar passed the ball only three times. Can you imagine an All Black fly-half making only three passes in a match?
Then, playing South Africa’s game, Biggar and Conor Murray at scrum-half, played it badly. Their kicking seldom asked a difficult question. In contrast Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard kicked very well, so well that Stuart Hogg at full-back was almost always challenged by at least one South African chaser. His opposite number Willie le Roux had an easy time of it.
The Lions have now made changes for this afternoon’s deciding Test. The starting XV doesn’t hint at a change in style or tactics. It’s good to see Finn Russell on the bench, but it would have been better to see him starting, and thus given the chance of imposing his style on the game from the start. The theory is of course that he will come on “when the game opens up”. It seldom does so now, because tired players are removed and fresh ones swarm on to the pitch.
Given the circumstances and the difficulties in staging this series, every effort should have been directed to making it memorable, a happy advertisement for rugby. Instead, fuelled by silly and tiresome mind-games from people like Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus who should know better, it is more likely to be recalled with disappointment and even distaste.
Sport isn’t science. As one former Scottish international remarked to me this week, the beauty of sport is that it is unpredictable. It is about taking risks and chance, employing the imagination, not always playing to a preconceived pattern. All of us over the years will have spoken of the importance of playing what is in front of you. That often means that you should be looking for space, not running hard into some hefty fellow.
The Lions aren’t of course the Barbarians. We all recognise that the result matters in a Test match. But it’s not the only thing that matters. If there is any point in the Lions, which in these days of shortened tours may be doubtful, it’s because, representing the cream of four nations, they can serve as an advertisement of all that is best in rugby. They have a last chance this year to do this today. Let us hope they do so. Last week was dreadful. A repetition would be very sad indeed.
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