I only have to remember my own experience on a Lions Tour in South Africa to know how different things could have been in the First Test last weekend.
I had been ruled out by injury – and while I came to regret not returning home straight away – as I sat high in the stand in Durban I experienced the hostility to everything the Lions did and to any decision that went against South Africa.
With that memory, I’m sure that if there been a crowd in Cape Town last Saturday then the Hamish Watson debacle would have been reviewed. That was a game changing moment and with a crowd in the stadium I would bet everything I own that it would have been a yellow card.
We don’t know if it would have changed the game but it wouldn’t have helped the Lions.
We saw in the Premier League last season how home advantage was no longer really an advantage when the crowds weren’t there. The Lions are a long way from home and they are touring in extraordinary and testing circumstances but the absence of that hostility is a huge advantage.
The decision went in their favour too when Lukhanyo Am kicked forward and Willle Le Roux was judged to be ahead of the ball.
The officials were looking for clear evidence that he was in front and I don’t know how they could find it with the angles they looked at. “It’s very tight” the TMO said and “We believe” as he gave his verdict to Nic Berry. I’ve played enough rugby and watched enough crime shows to know that “We believe” doesn’t constitute clear evidence. I think Rassie Erasmus will be sending an email to World Rugby wondering what’s going on.
This is the biggest stage for everyone involved, commentators, players and officials and it’s important that they don’t make obvious mistakes like that again.
But there were even more mistakes made by South Africa and if not mistakes, sins of omission.
It’s all very well talking about physicality, but what are you going to do when a team is prepared to do the same to you?
People say you should target a side’s weaknesses, I always think you can unsettle them more if you target their strengths. A side psychologically compensates for its weaknesses but it relies on its strengths. Undermine them and you’ve nowhere to go.
The Lions did it last weekend. Everyone said the best way to play Cheslin Kolbe was not to kick to him. The Lions did the opposite and look at the result. They tested him, forced a couple of knock ons, got the upper hand and next thing Rassie is talking about his injury after the game.
I don’t think South Africa wanted to be that bold but as they chase the series now they’re going to have no option.
What are the Lions’ strengths at the moment? It’s their wings, it’s their aerial game where they’re really dominant. Why not challenge them in that area and go after that and try and get some change and reward from what the Lions have got reward from?
Or else South Africa could try to hold on to possession and assert their physical dominance through carrying the ball and going through phases instead of just defending. The South Africans are showing physicality and pressure in their defence but they haven’t showed it in their attack.
Rassie has to find something to go after in the Lions team. They tried to target the Lions’ front row in the second half, but it didn’t work.
People were talking about Duhan van der Merwe and how he hasn’t been good in the air. Two or three times the ball went in the air, one he was nowhere near and was knocked on; one he got taken to ground and there was a turnover; and the other one he was caught. But South Africa didn’t go after that, they were all over the place.
If you’re targeting strengths you have to be accurate because it’s risky but the rewards are there for it.
South Africa, on the other hand, played an unadventurous game.
We haven’t seen Eben Etzebeth running through somebody. We haven’t seen Siya Kolisi sidestep somebody and get an offload away. It all just from their defence and kick chase at the moment.
As it was, I thought they could have played for 160 minutes last Saturday and they wouldn’t have broken the Lions down.
Physicality is the word we have heard about the South Africans, not just since they won the World Cup, but ever since I can remember.
I played against teams where you really got beaten up. Juan Smith manhandling lads, Pierre Spies running through people and we didn’t have an answer for that.
But the Lions did have an answer to it and maybe the game against South Africa A was a blessing in disguise. Anyone who has watched the documentary Chasing The Sun will know how much Rassie likes to talk about physicality, beating the shite out of the opposition, sending them back home and all the rest.
South Africa need something like Willie John McBride’s famous Lions 99 call to scramble the plans of the Lions.
It’s all very well talking about it, but what are you going to do when a team is prepared to do the same to you?
Physicality was the talking point before the South Africa A match and it was an even bigger talking point afterwards. I think Warren Gatland’s team talk would have been easy enough – Don’t get beaten up.
This week, the Lions have been saying all the right things in the media, just another game, blah, blah blah. But that’s not how any of the players are really feeling. They know they can make history.
I’m glad Conor Murray is back in the side. I was among those upset that he was left out.
There are a lot of Irish people, supporters, journalists, pundits, former players and players who think Gatland has something against Irish players and there are moments when I’d have to agree with them.
Maybe Gatland’s got something against Ireland, maybe he doesn’t but a lot of his decisions over the years haven’t sat well with me, from leaving Brian O’Driscoll out to making Murray captain and then dropping him.
But he gets nine out of 10 calls right so what can you say? Last week I wasn’t sure it was right to pick Courtney Lawes ahead of Tadgh Beirne but then Courtney Lawes is superb and who is the one that is blinkered, me or Warren Gatland?
His team selections over the years, the way he’s come out in the media when he’s been coach of Wales and I’ve played in some of those teams against Wales and always came away with the feeling that he had something against Ireland. But he knows a good player and, more importantly, he knows his own mind.
He recognised, for example, that Jack Conan was a good player in form. I didn’t expect him to be selected in the Lions squad this year, but rugby has a funny way of providing opportunities.
Caelan Doris picks up a head knock, Jack Conan comes in and has a good game against England and now he’s starting for the Lions. That’s something Gatland is prepared to do and it probably explains why we believe he’s against Ireland as we put historically put a lot of store by reputation and experience. Gatland does his own thing.
He has been right about Conan and he recognised that he was in form and Taulupe Faletau, who is also excellent, wasn’t.
The thing you can’t appreciate about Jack Conan until you’re near him is his size. His chest goes out further than Alun Wyn Jones and Mario Itoje combined.
The way he’s carried the ball has been excellent. He’s a good footballer, he’s a nuisance. He deserves his place. Every time he’s tested he rise to that test and it’s another big test against Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jasper Wiese.
But the pressure is on South Africa.
I roomed with Alun Wyn Jones on the Lions tour in 2009 and he’s a cracking guy, a really genuine fella. I questioned him in 2017 and I should learn from my mistakes but I wasn’t sure he could be truly fit for the first Test. It was the perfect game for him though because it wasn’t that fast. I thought it was played on an easy setting for him given South Africa’s tactics. I thought he did ok but when your playing partner is Mario Itoje, you kind of go under the radar a little bit.
When I met Rassie Erasmus, he was really a charming guy. He was someone who didn’t bullshit you. I met him ahead of an Ireland-South Africa game and when he took the job, I thought what he achieved was incredible given how I heard him speak so genuinely about South African rugby.
I thought the burner controversy was a good way to put stuff out there. But he’s also putting stuff out himself which contains a lot of information.
If I was the head coach would I be doing it? No. But it’s quite educational, although I’m not sure World Rugby would think the same way.
But this isn’t a time for education, it’s a time for inventiveness. I think South Africa need something like Willie John McBride’s famous Lions 99 call to change the shape of this game and to scramble the plans of the Lions.
They usually rely on Pieter-Steph du Toit lighting someone up but that didn’t happen. So if it’s not going to happen with a tackle. I’m not saying go and start a fight, but it’s maybe a one on one battle or du Toit goes after Courtney Lawes in the first few minutes. Or if they find themselves 12-3 up and the momentum of the game is starting to shift, then they might need something to break up the play. A call like the 99 where everyone is in is one way of taking back control.
South Africa didn’t have a Plan B in the first Test. They are a quality team, they’re world champions but Makazole Mapimpi was just chasing kicks. They have to challenge the Lions. We’ve been talking about the physicality of South Africa for three months, there has to be more now. They can’t just be kicking the leather off the ball and hoping that the TMO sides with them. What is their point of difference? With so much pressure on them, they need something.
Ultimately, no point of difference will make a difference I believe. Because Warren Gatland knows his team and he backs his team. He knows that if South Africa want to fight, they’ll fight and if South Africa decide to play, the Lions are better at that too. And in an empty stadium, nobody will be able to make things easier for South Africa.