Test Series Review: South Africa Vs. British and Irish Lions

Sanjay DevaCorrespondent IJuly 7, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 04:  Jon Smit, the South African captain charges upfield during the Third Test match between South African and the British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park Stadium on July 4, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A 2-1 series win for the Springboks over the British and Irish Lions avenged the disappointment of 1997.

In many ways however, this series failed to live up to expectations, was blighted by off-the-ball incidents, and littered with inconsistent officiating.

The Springboks seem to be very happy and satisfied with a 2-1 series win, even though they were disgraceful in the third test.

The bad memories of 1997 can now be replaced by a series win, and it is eerie how similar the 2009 campaign was to 1997, with the roles reversed.

In 1997, the Boks were clearly the better side, and outscored the Lions by nine tries to three.

But poor goal-kicking let them down and the Lions managed to win the first two games even though they were outplayed. The series win was sealed with a Jeremy Guscott drop goal. In the dead rubber, the Springboks won by 19 points.

In 2009, the Springboks won the first test, albeit unconvincingly, won the second even though they were outplayed for most of the match, and sneaked home courtesy of better goal-kicking and a hero in Morne Steyn. In the dead rubber, they were beaten by 19 points.

The First test started with the Springboks looking extremely focused and professional. They executed the same strategy that won them the Rugby World Cup in 2007: dominate set pieces, kick the goals, and make no errors. It is not pretty rugby, but it can be mighty effective in tight contests.

The Lions, meanwhile, looked to play the more expansive game, on the hard fields of South Africa.

It was the Springboks who dominated the first 60 minutes, sticking to the pattern they know best. With a 19-point lead, the game was effectively sealed. However, a mass substitution strategy by coach Peter de Villiers robbed the Boks of their momentum and the Lions sniffed an opening.

They showed great composure and determination to stick to their running game and the Boks simply held on for dear life. The reintroduction of John Smit with a few minutes left was imperative to regain composure, play the percentages, and grind out the victory.

Although the Boks could seemingly destroy this Lions side by playing their game, any letup would be punished. The Lions were willing to take greater risks to try to expose the Springbok defense.

A tough itinerary for the Lions saw them based in Capetown for the week leading up to the test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. The Boks had the luxury of getting accustomed to the highveld. It was meant to mean a hiding for the Lions in the last two weeks of a tough tour. Instead we saw two shocking Boks performances.

Schalk Burger let himself down and will have to deal with a tarnished reputation for the rest of his life. The Lions seized their chance and started exposing the Springbok defense almost at will.

The Boks looked shocked and simply could not construct any sort of phase play. facing an eight-point deficit at halftime, the Boks played their second best half of the series. They got field position and ran the ball back at the Lions, forcing errors and working two more wonderful tries.

It took some brilliance from Jacque Fourie, a moment of madness from Ronan O'Gara, and up stepped Steyn to do to the Lions what Guscott had done to the Boks in 1997. It wasn't fair, but it lasted for 12 painful years.

The dead rubber at Ellis park was all about pride for the Lions, and a chance for many Boks to earn a place in the "first" team. The Lions were magnificent, and once again employed the same strategy as they employed all tour, despite having massive personnel changes.

I liked the way they moved the ball, ran straight and hard, and took the ball through phases. Many in the Southern hempishere criticize players like Stephen Jones as one-dimensional, but he was instrumental in dictating the way the Lions played, and was prominent looping around the outside backs to create the extra man.

Meanwhile, the Boks looked devoid of any sense of a game plan other than to play error-free rugby in the opposition half, and feed off the Lions mistakes.

Their runners were unable to break the advantage line, meaning we often resorted to kicking, which was aimless from the back. The Lions returned the ball with interest from Rob Kearney and Jones.

Whilst I thought the Lions got away with a lot of negative play at the breakdown, especially in the third test, they played to the referee and got away with it.

The fact they transgressed the offside line stopped the Boks from getting over the advantage line. As a result the Boks were either too shallow turning the ball over, or too deep and nailed behind the advantage line.

No one in the Springbok side was able to produce any tactic to overcome the opposition moves. It may be why the Boks had greater success from set pieces in scoring tries.

However, it was interesting to how the Bulls players, many with world-class talent, played so well a month or so ago, and a now look very average. I think much blame has to go to the coaching staff, especially mad-mad Peter de Villers.

He has not produced anything constructive from the Boks; we were outscored in the series 74-63, but more importantly the Lions scored seven tries to our five.

Whilst we may have won the series 2-1, the Lions can claim the moral victory as we did in 1997. Whilst we have 12 years to claim the result, we have 12 more years of waiting to stamp our dominance over the Lions...

Check out my Springbok player ratings for the British and Irish Lions series