Lions Tour 2021: What second Test defeat means for the Scots in the squad

The spectre of 2001 looms large for the Lions and it’s not like they weren’t warned. Maro Itoje cast up the tour of 20 years ago last week, keen perhaps to douse the hoopla in the aftermath of the first Test win.

Tempers flare following Cheslin Kolbe's high challenge on Lions scrum-half Conor Murray. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Tempers flare following Cheslin Kolbe's high challenge on Lions scrum-half Conor Murray. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Two decades ago Martin Johnson's Lions crushed Australia in the opening match only to lose the series 2-1.

If the current side are to avoid such a fate they are going to have to dig deep and find a level of performance that far exceeds what they produced on Saturday.

Warren Gatland’s safety-first strategy was unpicked by South Africa in a dominant second-half performance which yielded a 27-9 win thanks to two fine tries, moments that illuminated a match bogged down in mediocrity and ill feeling.

Duhan van der Merwe, in the background, was shown the yellow card by referee Ben O'Keeffe for a trip on Kolbe. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

The first half was particularly turgid - and long - as the two sides cancelled each other out and the Lions must surely adopt a different approach next week. Becoming involved in another grunt-fest would play into the hands of the hosts who have well and truly shaken off the rust of almost two years in purdah.

All the momentum is now with the Springboks as the Lions contemplate how to alter the narrative.

Gatland said after the match that he may consider giving the second Test side a chance to redeem themselves in the final game but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be changes.

The Welsh bandwagon is already up and running for Liam Williams to replace Stuart Hogg at full-back but the Scotland captain doesn’t deserve to be cast aside without consideration. South Africa targeted the Lions with an aerial bombardment and Hogg coped best of the back three.

The Lions were subjected to an aerial bombardment at times. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

Duhan van der Merwe fared less well and the big winger seemed too caught up in the emotion of the occasion, particularly in the first half. He got away with a dangerous and late tackle on Pieter-Steph du Toit which ended the Springbok No 8’s match prematurely and was then fortunate to escape with a yellow card for a wild trip on Cheslin Kolbe.

Van der Merwe had been diligent, controlled and defensively sound in the first Test but lost his composure on Saturday and it is hard to see him retaining the jersey.

Chris Harris was the pick of the Scottish starters, offering solidity and continuity in the midfield. But the Lions were sorely lacking a creative spark and one can only wonder what Finn Russell made of it all.

The Racing 92 stand-off is back in training after an Achilles tear but has not played since the second match of the tour against the Sharks. That game was played on July 7 so it will be fully a month by the time the third Test comes around.

The players square up as Conor Murray, right, receives treatment following the challenge by Cheslin Kolbe. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Hamish Watson should also come into the reckoning as the Lions look to break out of their straitjacket.

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Alun Wyn Jones, the captain, knows the tourists lost the set-piece battle and thinks there will be changes as he prepares for what he describes as “the biggest week of the tour”.

“There was obviously a momentum shift,” said the Welshman. “We came off second best in the aerial battle and they got momentum from getting to the corners. In the set piece, I think they all turned up this week and put us under pressure. And then there was probably too much momentum for us to shift it back.

“I think from the outside you’d probably call it backlash but from where I’m sitting here we probably didn’t help ourselves. The parts of the game that were prevalent and positive from last week weren’t there, particularly in the second half this week. We’re fortunate we’ve got another week. It’s going to be obviously the biggest week of the tour now, but it’s the last chance to put it right.

“It’s still a squad effort and Gats is notorious for making changes, and we go again. There’s been a lot said about a wounded Springbok: I think the Lions have taken a dent and we need to put it right.”

This is Jones’ third experience of being tied at 1-1 going into the final Test of a Lions series but the skipper said it was hard to compare it to previous tours.

“They’re big weeks,” he said. “This is different. I’ve had people ask about comparisons on previous tours - you can’t compare them, they’re different weeks, different opposition.”

It was an unedifying match at times, particularly the first half which lasted around 65 minutes such were the number of stoppages. The Lions led 9-6 at the interval through Dan Biggar’s three penalties but they failed to add to that tally in the second period as the world champions found their mojo.

Halfbacks Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk each produced delightful kicks to set up tries for Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am, respectively, and there was no way back for the Lions as Pollard’s boot kept the scoreboard ticking over, the stand-off kicking 17 points from five penalties and a conversion.

South Africa deserved the victory for trying to play rugby and were all the more impressive given the months of inactivity since their World Cup win. Captain Siya Kolisi had spent the build-up to this series in isolation with Covid but was the Springboks’ dynamo on Saturday, leading and inspiring.

While it would be churlish to dwell too much on how much of an impact Rassie Erasmus’ video rant against the officiating in the first Test had on Saturday’s sequel, it would entirely understandable if referee Ben O’Keeffe had the South African director of rugby in the back of his mind.

Doubtlessly aware of the extra scrutiny on him, the New Zealander was meticulous in his performance, referring all contentious decisions to the television match official. It contributed to the fragmented nature of the game but the hosts were worthy winners.

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