DURBAN - IT is with good reason that the 2021 visit of the British & Irish Lions was labelled the “tour like no other”.
The six-week, eight-match tour bordered on the bizarre from start to finish, from the moment the tourists landed in Johannesburg to find themselves in the epicentre of the Covid-19 third wave, to the Hollywood-scripted end which had Morne Steyn reprising his heroics of 2009.
The Lions were way too strong for the weakened South African franchises, scoring 210 points in four matches, which included two outings against the Sharks because the Bulls game had to be called off because of a Covid-19 outbreak in their camp. The Lions were relieved to get out of Johannesburg, especially when on the day they flew to Cape Town, looting and unrest broke out in parts of Gauteng and in KwaZulu-Natal.
Lions coach Warren Gatland then sparked unrest of a different kind ahead of the first Test when he used the travelling British & Irish media to question the neutrality of South African TMO Marius Jonker, who was thrust into the role because Brendon Pickerill could not travel because of Covid-19 restrictions in New Zealand.
After the first Test, won 22-17 by the Lions, the Boks felt that Jonker had over-compensated because of the pressure put on him by the Lions and Rassie Erasmus responded with a 62-minute video critique of the match officials. The SA director of rugby was subsequently charged with misconduct by World Rugby and a date for his hearing is imminent.
But Erasmus' point was made and the second Test was subjected to over-scrutiny, with the first half stretching to 63 minutes as the officials examined every incident. The Boks did get the rub of the green, though, and accelerated home in the second half to win 27-9.
They were also marginally the better team in the third Test and overall few would quibble that the Boks were deserved winners of the series. It was former Bok captain John Smit who perhaps best summed up the significance of the SA victory.
“We came back from the World Cup in 2007 and wanted to back up the legacy to show the world and our supporters that we could do it again,” Smit said.
“The only way to do it is to pitch up and beat the best of the north.
“This Springbok team has done that as well in unbelievably difficult conditions. They've had Covid, they've had isolation, they've been in a bubble. They haven't been able to develop new players or new strategies because they've missed out on two seasons because of the pandemic.
“This is a special group. It's a Springbok team that continues to give hope to South Africa. They continue to perform, they leave everything out there.” Smit said captain Siya Kolisi had again risen to the occasion magnificently. “It's a special story and he's been able to add on to that with incredible leadership,” said Smit.
“In his first interview, he gives kudos to Eben Etzebeth because he understands the impetus and importance of that last scrum. “For me, that's a great leader. He understands the value of the people that he's responsible for and he gives them and the leadership group all the credit. He's an incredibly humble person.”