- Lifestyle & Sports
- 24 Jul 21
The British and Irish Lions hold a special place in the hearts of the fans from the home nations. But their presence is of even greater significance to the country they tour. For South Africa, the upcoming series of three test games is about more than rugby. No wonder it is seen as do-or-die stuff…
What’s seldom is special.
Christmas wouldn’t be as enjoyable if it was every day (sorry Wizzard). We wouldn’t get excited about Electric Picnic if Stradbally opened its fields to festival revellers every weekend. The World Cup, both rugby and soccer, would become boring if they were held once a year. The repetition of something significant can render it meaningless.
That’s what makes the Lions so momentous for us here in Ireland and the UK. Every four years, the best players the home nations have to offer venture down south, to take on those who do not think we’re good enough, do not think we’re strong and do not respect us. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa: it is the way they all tend to think.
For South Africa, the next Lions tour is 12 years away, not 4. No wonder it takes on an added significance.
DISGUSTING EYE GOUGE
For some of 2021’s crop of British and Irish Lions, being selected for the tour will represent the pinnacle of their careers. Some won’t feature in a single test; and many will never again be selected to bear the badge of unity emblazoned on the famous red shirt. Those who venture down south aren’t just looking at what is potentially a once in a career opportunity. It’s frequently once in a lifetime.
Because as special as a Lions tour is for fans, selection for a Lions tour as a player is the golden ticket to rugby immortality. The fairy dust that is test series selection is only sprinkled on those capable of scaling rugby’s highest peaks. Winning a Lions test series. That, my friends, is your key to the cities of rugby heaven.
You doubt it?
Lawrence Dallaglio spelled out the significance of being a Lion when he handed out the jerseys for the first test after he got injured before the 2005 tour of New Zealand. Donal Lenihan highlighted its importance when he shed bitter tears after the Lions lost the series-deciding 3rd test in Sydney in 2001.
The extent to which people still talk about the winners in 1971, 1974 and 1997 proves it.
And so, as the Lions take to the field this Saturday, the weight of one of rugby’s most iconic institutions will rest upon the shoulders of the fifteen starters. The legacies of Phil Bennet, Willie John McBride, Martin Johnson and many more will inject more meaning into a jersey they may be wearing for the first and last time.
For the ‘Boks, meanwhile, playing the Lions is the opportunity to impose themselves – again, as it happens – as the biggest, the best and the strongest in the world. Thus, will the ‘Boks bring their nastiest form of niggle into this tie?
The scars left on ‘97’s winners and the bruises inflicted on 2009’s losers are merely the tip of the iceberg. The ‘Boks have a tradition of not only playing on the edge in this series, but of daring the Gods of rugby to impose a sanction upon them.
Some of you will remember a certain Bismarck Du Plesis threatening to pulverise Brian O’Driscoll’s face in the first test in ’09, after the Irish captain and Lions centre shoved the hooker – who was standing threateningly over Drico as he lay on the turf. All 6 foot 3 and 114 kg of prime South African beef loomed over BOD with his arm cocked in the scorching Durban sun, ready to burst lips and shatter teeth.
It would have been idiotic for Du Plesis to strike, and I’m sure he never intended to. O’Driscoll recently said that he thought about blowing the hooker a kiss. “I remember specifically thinking, ‘do I blow him a kiss?’ on the ground,” he said on Off The Ball’s Classic Games Club, “All he was trying to do was get you to wince.”
Du Plesis’ brutish gesture went deeper than violence. It was a psychological contest wherein he who winces, loses. But this brazen and at times grotesque physicality was repeated throughout the three tests.
You weren’t around to see it?
I can’t possibly forget Schalk Burger’s disgusting eye gouge of Luke Fitzgerald 30 seconds into the second test. That was how low it sank. After the media storm and Burger’s eight-week ban, then Springbok’s coach, Peter De Villiers, reckoned rugby without eye gouging was more like ballet. A lovely fella is Peter.
But this is what a Lions tour means to South Africa. If they have to act like bullies to win they will. If they must reconstruct your retina, so be it; and if they want to kiss you back BOD, they will. Right in the face with a well-placed fist.
Springboks that lose against the Lions live with it for the rest of their lives, Springboks that beat the Lions live forever. Tramping on the edge of risk and rules is, apparently, worth the reward.
This Lions tour will be different, of course. Eye gouging will be 100% red carded – you can rely on that. And, at least in theory, all other instances of foul play will be clamped down on. The intimate nature of modern coverage, and the immediate access that the world has to footage means that it really is harder to get away with out and out skulduggery than ever before.
But what will not have changed, is what rugby means to the people of South Africa.
The strength of the Lions concept comes from the unity it embodies between four different and historically conflicting nations. And it is a parallel unity between a disparate people from which the Springboks also draw their strength.
In fairness, South African coach Rassie Erasmus has facilitated the transformation in South African rugby that previous coaches had treated as a headache. Bringing honesty and transparency into the conversation of racial parity in South African rugby and naming Siya Kolisi as South Africa’s first ever black captain were some of the factors that helped achieve this. But winning the World Cup provided the final glue needed to piece it all together and unite the nation at least in rugby terms.
Kolisi hails from the township of Zwide, where food is scarce and prospects are low; Makazole Mapimpi from the village of Tsholomnqa in the rural Eastern Cape province, stricken by struggle and strife; and Faf De Klerk and Rohan Janse van Rensburg went to the prestigious high school of Hoërskool Waterkloof. This is a South African team made up of virtual polar opposites all united under the rainbow flag.
Not all of the portents are positive.
As South Africa deals with a devastating third wave of Covid-19 and the death toll due to the ongoing rioting and civil unrest in the Republic continues to rise, the importance of these specific games of rugby that make up the series may seem diminished.
But there is still an historic significance to it all. This Springbok team is a symbol of unity in a time of great strife, in a country that has already suffered so much. When they play, they play to provide a moment of solace for those whose lives are at risk; and for those who struggle each and every day, either way. And because of this, they play with no respite.
The warm-up games, mind games and all the analysis mean very little now. The reality is that in three weeks’ time, we will have a winner and a loser of a test series. One squad will forever be remembered in the halls of rugby legend and in sporting folklore. The losers may never get a chance to overturn their failure.
Winning a test series as a Lion in South Africa is a monumental task. Only 4 teams have done it. Those in 1891, 1896, 1974 and 1997.
But what is so seldom, is so special.
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