One of the more amusing moments of this British & Irish Lions tour came on the eve of the third Test when a South American journalist asked the Springboks representatives up for questioning whether the weekend decider was effectively a warm-up match for the forthcoming Rugby Championship. Given South Africa begin that competition with back-to-back matches against Argentina, starting on Saturday, full marks for working the local angle, but in overcoming the Lions you sense the Springboks No 1 goal for the year has already been achieved.
It raises an interesting point, anche se, because going back to the buildup to the World Cup, South Africa have made a virtue of having their backs against the wall, of being up against the clock – of Chasing the Sun – and they have relished the narrative of having to overcome adversity.
Judging them purely on results – a World Cup triumph and a Lions series win – you cannot say it has not been successful, but equally it has become a way of excusing the fact that they are not exactly riveting to watch. This series, South Africa have welcomed any accusations that they are “boring” – Handre Pollard countered by saying the only thing more beautiful than South Africa’s style of play was his wife.
And it was exactly the same in the run-up to the World Cup. On the eve of the final against England the then head coach, and now director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus said: “If one understands where we’ve been coming from, we’ve got certain challenges. One of them was always to redeem ourselves and become a power again in world rugby.
“By doing that, you have to have some building blocks in place, and we’ve followed a certain route, and played to what gives you good results in the short term, and on the scoreboard. We certainly accept that there are some things in the game that we have to improve, and we take it on the chin.” Now, you could argue, is the time to set about making those improvements.
Because while you must commend the power of the collective within the Springboks given how badly their preparations for facing the Lions were disrupted, it must be hoped that an approach by which the end justifies the means may be expanded upon. Both for their benefit, and for the wider sport’s, it almost feels incumbent.
Taking the second point first, Erasmus is unlikely to lose any sleep over the slap on the wrist that is coming his way from World Rugby, but hour-long video rants, ploys to slow the game to standstill, medical staff standing in the in-goal area barking instructions at players and endless backbiting has, at times during this series, undoubtedly lowered the tone. World Rugby has been desperately slow to act throughout and you cannot but wonder whether a firmer hand early on from the supposed grown-ups in the room might have led to a bit more maturity all round.
Moreover, for the Springboks’ own benefit a long-term view is now required. They have some incredibly talented players at their disposal – Lukhanyo Am, Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende have been standout performers this series, and Cheslin Kolbe is box office whenever they can get him the ball. But for all that Morne Steyn’s winning kick makes a nice yarn, should it not alarm the Springboks there were such few alternatives to a 37-year-old backup fly-half? The vast majority of those who have featured against the Lions are either the wrong side of 30 or edging that way and there are obvious concerns about the next generation of talent.
Certainly there are some talented players within the franchises but the jury remains out on whether the new look United Rugby Championship will enhance the player pathway. The Pro14 was rarely known for its high-end matches with the majority of international players on show, and while efforts have been made to avoid overlap with the Test calendar, it remains to be seen just how many senior players from the Springboks, Irlanda, Wales and Scotland will make the cross-continent trips.
While South Africa have avoided the catastrophe that would have come with a cancelled Lions series, the shortfall in lost revenue is little less devastating. They would have loved to have the 2023 World Cup – as was initially recommended – to make up for it but without it they are likely to need assistance from World Rugby. It is a great shame, but against that backdrop it is easy to see why, for Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber, the ends may continue to justify the means for a little while longer.