The Springboks won’t be defined by Saturday’s defeat of minuscule margins, but rather the manner in which they respond will reveal their true championship qualities, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There were numerous reasons why the Boks’ narrow defeat by the British & Irish Lions was met with a widespread sentiment of severe disappointment by South African rugby lovers this past weekend.
For one, in a dream first half the Springboks controlled proceedings and opened up a nine-point lead to raise expectations of a memorable victory, only for a nightmare second 40 minutes to brutally dash these hopes.
Then there were several contentious officiating decisions, and, let’s be honest, it generally doesn’t take much for South African fans to cathartically turn on the referee when the rub of the green starts to go against the Boks.
And, after all the unrest in South Africa amid a Covid-19 third wave, sports lovers were also more desperate than ever for some jubilant relief that a Springbok victory would have provided.
Yet, it wasn’t to be, and the manner in which the Springboks faded under immense pressure from the Lions was as frustrating as it was difficult to watch for partisan South African supporters.
After wading through it all, however, credit has to be given where credit is due. Indeed, the Lions’ ability to achieve good gains at the scrums and mauls, while producing a contestable kicking masterclass, was immeasurably impressive.
Even so, the Springboks weren’t far away from emerging as celebrated victors. Two ‘awarded on-field’ tries were overturned by the smallest of margins. They should have had a 10-minute period with a one-man advantage after Hamish Watson got away with a tip tackle. Instead, the resultant penalty and kick at goal were uncharacteristically missed by Handre Pollard, to go with an earlier failed conversion.
There was also more than enough to be seen in the first half for the Springbok coaches to be heartened by the potential of a Springbok side that would have benefited immensely from much-needed exposure to Test-match intensity and more game time under the belt.
The Springboks have also now seen just how streetsmart the Lions are. By opting to launch high bombs on Cheslin Kolbe that were often contested by towering counterpart Duhan van der Merwe, the Lions revealed their contestable kicking hand.
Kwagga Smith also endured some struggles in backfield during the second half, and ultimately the pinpoint box-kicking of Ali Price was a thing of beauty for any neutral observer (or Lions fan, of course).
The quality of the Lions bench, and impact of mobile forwards such as Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes, were also exposed with startling clarity.
All in all, the Springboks will be better for having experienced Saturday’s 80-minute examination, and there would have been countless lessons learned in defeat.
The result also shared many similarities with the Boks’ opening defeat by the All Blacks at the World Cup, where just a couple of slip-ups cost them dearly, and ultimately they couldn’t claw their way back in time.
With the Boks’ backs against the wall, and needing to adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality from that point on, they took that defeat on the chin, went back to work, and then powered to World Cup glory.
The big difference now is that the Boks don’t have two or three games to work out any kinks, and the character and fighting spirit of this team will need to come to the fore in just a matter of days.
This past Saturday’s second half may have dented the Springboks’ pride to some degree but, rest assured, it will have also served to fire up the world champions as they go in search of redemption this weekend.
Until then, any judgements should be reserved.
The true character of this Bok side is about to be unveiled.