What the pundits said as Lions suffer series defeat

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Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Alun Wyn Jones celebrate Ken Owens scoring their first try

Four-time head coach Sir Ian McGeechan believes The British & Irish Lions will rue their missed opportunities after they lost the series against South Africa 2-1.

The Lions went into the break with a slim lead but some Cheslin Kolbe brilliance coupled with the experience of Morne Steyn gave South Africa a 19-16 win to seal a comeback series victory.

Sky Sports and Talksport pundits reflected on the heartbreaking loss for Warren Gatland’s tourists and how they can use this disappointment in four years’ time.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Speaking on Sky Sports, McGeechan – the orchestrator of the Lions’ last series win in South Africa in 1997 – believed the tourists had chances to take the series victory but weren’t able to take them.

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McGeechan said: “To me, it is a big missed opportunity. The Lions were, I think, much the better side, but they missed their opportunities in that first half, really. They could have been a clear 10/12 points ahead.

“They had to keep playing, I would like to have seen them maybe kick a couple more penalties, but the quality of the rugby was so different to what had been there before and it created the opportunities.

The South Africa team celebrate winning the Castle Lager Lions Series Trophy

“For the first time, South Africa, I think, were left wondering about what they were doing, and Finn Russell coming on was very important, he’s had a big say in almost the win.

“It won’t be an easy dressing room to walk into, and I never thought I would be looking at the same circumstances, again, two Tours to South Africa on the trot.

“I know what those players are going through, and the coaches, it’s a tough, tough place to be.”

LEFT IT ALL OUT THERE

2017 Lions tourist James Haskell looked to the positives of an enthralling decider: “I think rugby was the winner, going into the cliches. The Lions played the best they can.

“Yes, there were decisions over whether they should have gone for points. I think people will talk about Finn Russell, etc, but the decision wasn’t his.

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“The decision was part of the game plan and sometimes when you feel, and that’s the problem when you’re on the field and you feel something’s going well, you have a go at it and if it comes off you are a genius, if you don’t, it’s a mistake.

Ken Owens scores a try and celebrates with Bundee Aki and Duhan van der Merwe

“I think the Lions are brilliant, I know this wasn’t the Test series we wanted, but for some of those Lions, it’s the only opportunity they’re ever going to get and I’m pleased for them.

“I’m sure when they reflect back, they’ll know they left nothing out there.”

HAVE TO TAKE THE POINTS

Three-time tourist Ronan O’Gara, who was part of the Tour to South Africa in 2009 that was lost in almost identical circumstances, agreed with McGeechan.

“With the team point of view, they will be very disappointed obviously because it’s brutal, it’s ruthless this level of the sport, because the higher you go, the margins get smaller and smaller and that’s what we saw,” he said.

“There was probably two chances to win the series, the first Test, they did the business and then the second 40 minutes of the second Test, they stood on their throat and they didn’t kill off South Africa.

Siya Kolisi celebrates winning with teammates

“You look at, it probably came down to Liam Williams hitting Josh Adams outside him or Duhan van der Merwe scoring and those decisions cost them.

“In cup rugby, it’s imperative you take your points, you have just got to take your points. You have to give huge credit to South Africa, in the fact that a great team find a way to win,

“It may not be pretty to some people, but you look at them today when their scrum was needed when their maul was needed, and what’s completely under-appreciated again is when you have got a genius like Kolbe, it matters.”

KOLBE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE

Former Springbok captain and 2009 series winner Bryan Habana was quick to praise Kolbe.

Habana said: “I think his ability to, in a small matter of space, do the most incredible things is phenomenal and I think Wille Le Roux has got to get some kudos for the effort he played, I think making the right decisions, unlike Liam Williams, was absolutely superb.

“Long may the impact that Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi are doing for the Springbok side continue because it is such a joy to watch.

The British & Irish Lions experienced a severe case of deja vu as Morne Steyn came off the bench to kick the Springboks to back-to-back series victories over the tourists. 12 years after Steyn landed the winning penalty for South Africa in the second Test of the 2009 series, the 37-year-old returned to haunt Warren Gatland’s men in Cape Town. A Ken Owens try and five points from the boot of replacement Finn Russell had put the Lions 10-6 ahead half-time, with Handre Pollard kicking two penalties for the hosts. But a Cheslin Kolbe try after the interval turned the tide back in the Springboks’ favour before Russell and Steyn traded penalties to leave the scores level with six minutes to go. And with the class of 2021 looking to emulate the Lions of 1974 and 1997, it was ultimately Steyn who delivered the decisive blow to break the tourists’ hearts once again. RUSSELL ARRIVAL CHANGES TEST The turning point in the second half of the second Test revolved around the aerial battle as the Springboks took advantage of a series of mistakes from the tourists under the high ball. Unsurprisingly, South Africa continued where they left off at Cape Town Stadium, launching the ball high repeatedly in the early stages and enjoying plenty of success once again. But after a couple of high balls went the way off the Green and Gold, the third handed the Lions a chance to take the lead after Jasper Wiese was adjudged to have been offside. Biggar’s effort was wide of the mark, however, in what proved to be almost his final act as the Welsh fly-half was soon forced off with an injury after making a tackle on Lukhanyo Am. His exit prompted the early introduction of Finn Russell for his Test debut for the tourists, having last run out in the famous red jersey in the first match against Cell C Sharks in July. While he had to watch on as Handre Pollard kicked the opening points on 11 minutes, it was not long before Russell responded from the tee after the Lions were awarded a scrum penalty. It was the perfect nerve-settler for the Racing 92 man and after what had been a promising start for the world champions, the Lions suddenly found themselves in business. THE SCOTTISH CONNECTION After scoring 39 tries across their first six games in 2021, the Lions had found their attack blunted by South Africa in the first two Tests - restricted to one driving maul score in the series opener. The numbers from the second Test defeat in particular would have made frustrating reading for attack coach Gregor Townsend, with the tourists gaining just 105 metres from 85 carries. That was largely down to the Springboks slowing down the game, disrupting the high-tempo game Gatland’s men had benefitted from in the second half of the first Test. In response, the Lions made four changes to their backline for the decider, bringing in the Tour’s top try scorer Josh Adams for his first Test cap to signal their intent in Cape Town. Gatland also opted for Ali Price at scrum-half and his Scottish teammate Russell on the bench, a decision that quickly paid dividends when Biggar had to take his leave earlier than expected. From the moment Russell entered the fray, the No.10 began pulling the strings with quick, flat passing as the tourists looked to keep the ball moving through the hands at speed. And the Lions took advantage of the shift in momentum on 19 minutes, with Russell kicking to the corner and launching a driving maul that ended in Owens crashing over for the game’s first try. Russell continued his dream start to his Lions’ Test career by slotting the conversion to make it 10-3 before putting Liam Williams into space for what could have been a second try had the Wales full-back spotted Adams on the wing. MOMENTUM SWINGS ONCE AGAIN The Springboks responded to the tourists flexing their muscles in the forward battle in the only way they know how, winning a scrum penalty of their own on 35 minutes. Pollard made no mistake from the tee to reduce the deficit to 10-6 at the break but only after the Lions came close to crossing the whitewash after flexing their muscles once again. Having already utilised the driving maul to great effect, they opted for the corner again and went through the phases near the Boks’ line before a penalty relieved the pressure on the hosts. The stats at the interval highlighted the Lions’ dominance in the first half, with the tourists making 57 runs, four clean breaks and 133 metres - more than they did in the whole of the second Test. But having been unable to capitalise on their chances to give themselves breathing room on the scoreboard, the men in red were put under pressure by South Africa after the restart. Injuries to Wyn Jones and Lood De Jager contributed to a stop-start beginning to the second half but while Pollard had two opportunities from the tee, he failed to convert either. Yet the Springboks were in the ascendancy and after a high ball was collected by Am, the centre found Willie le Roux who in turn unleashed Kolbe to race over for his first try of the series. After both of the first two Tests were won by the side trailing at half-time, history appeared to be repeating itself again as Pollard converted to put the hosts 13-10 ahead. STEYN RETURNS TO HAUNT LIONS With 20 minutes left on the clock and everything to play for, Gatland rolled the dice with the introduction of Lions Test debutants Sam Simmonds and Adam Beard. A whole new front row also arrived on the scene and after enjoying their first significant spell of possession in the second half, a Russell penalty levelled the scores at 13-13. Parity did not last long for the tourists as replacement Morne Steyn - the man who kicked the series-winning points in 2009 - landed a penalty with his second touch of the game. The Lions had a chance to equalise again moments later but instead repeated their brave call from the first half to go for the corner and instigate another driving maul. While Mako Vunipola got over the whitewash, the ball was held up by the Green and Gold shirts before the resulting scrum went in the Springboks’ favour to relieve the pressure. But a probing run from Robbie Henshaw and excellent support from the Lions earned another opportunity seconds later, with Russell levelling the scores up this time from the tee. However it was the Lions’ old nemesis Steyn who had the last say once again, stepping up to kick the winning points 12 years after delivering the knockout blow to win the 2009 series.

“I think the manner in which he just lifts himself up at the big moments is something that makes me as a South African extremely proud.”

World Cup winner and Vodafone ambassador Maggie Alphonsi added that the beaten Lions must use this heartbreak to motivate them for the series to Australia in four years’ time.

She said: “We’ve all been in games where we have lost and you stand there and watch the presentation, you see them get their medals you see them get their trophy, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

“But at the same time, when you’ve lost like this you bottle this feeling, and it will drive you for another four years.

“So, for those players who will get a second chance to come back at this Lions series, you hope that this will drive them on to get a series win.”

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