Epic Lions series ends in more controversy

South Africa's players have been branded "pathetic" for their protest against Bakkies Botha's two-week suspension, by a former teammate.

The South African captain John Smit, sporting the controversial "Justice 4" armband, thunders into Andrew Sheridan during the third Test.
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South Africa's players have been branded "pathetic" for their protest against Bakkies Botha's two-week suspension, by one of their former teammates. The Springboks took the field for the third Test against the British & Irish Lions at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday wearing white armbands bearing the inscription "Justice 4".

The action was a show of solidarity towards Botha, who had been banned for a fortnight for his part in the incident which saw the Lions prop Adam Jones sustain a dislocated shoulder in the second Test match that will sideline the Osprey front-rower for six months. The protest is now under investigation by the IRB. A seething John Smit, the captain who is usually a model of diplomacy, said his side were angry at the decision on the eve of the final Test in Johannesburg.

Many observers were unaware of the significance of the gesture, but South African Rugby Players' Association chief executive Piet Heymans revealed the reasoning. He said: "The Springboks players all feel for Bakkies. The inconsistency has upset the players, and they felt very strongly that they must take a firm stance and show their unhappiness with the application of the relevant law." However, the former Springbok centre Andre Snyman, who played against the Lions in 1997, said the players had over-reacted given the relatively trifling length of the ban.

"I think it was childish," said Snyman, who hosted a live screening of the third Test at the Crowne Plaza in Dubai. "Unfortunately, those things do happen. It is a contact sport and Bakkies is a tall man, every now and then he is going to use a swinging arm or make a high tackle. There are so many other players that also make high tackles. "I don't know why they made a big scene out of it. I don't know whether it was the media, the Lions coaching staff, the officials, or even the South African coaching staff.

"They should have just let it go. It was a call by the referee at the time, and it is like the bounce of the ball: sometimes the decision goes for you and sometimes it goes against you. "I think they made a big thing out of nothing. They should have just let it go, focused on the game ahead and left all the niggly little things that were around alone." It was not the first time players have protested at punishments meted out to their colleagues.

At the 2003 World Cup, Scotland's Martin Leslie was sent home early after being banned for attempting to intentionally strike another player on the head. The flanker has a nervous facial twitch that came to the fore during matches. As a TV camera panned along the line of Scotland players singing their national anthem ahead of the next match, each of them performed a sideways twitch as a gesture of support.

Snyman himself was once part of a group who took industrial action against their home union. He added: "I remember in 1997 we, as a whole team, went on strike because we didn't want the coach who the union had appointed. We, as players, informed the union we were going on strike. "Internal politics does happen, but that was a big thing. A coach is someone you have to live for the whole season. A small little incident like a yellow card, that is pathetic.

"If it happens in a game, just move on. I wasn't part of a team that, over such small things, decided we weren't going to run on to the field, or wear armbands." An spiteful series fittingly concluded with players grappling as the clock counted down on the consolation victory for the Lions in the final Test. Simon Shaw, the towering second-row who is known as "Gentle Giant", has received a two-week ban after being cited for dangerous play during yesterday's third Test victory.

Shaw was found guilty of striking Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez with his knee just before half time. Shaw received a yellow card for the offence, but he was then summoned to appear at a disciplinary hearing yesterday. Shaw was the second Lions player to be cited on their 10-match tour, following Scotland forward Nathan Hines who received a one-week ban for a dangerous tackle during the draw against the Emerging Springboks.

James Robson, the Lions doctor, insists the epic three-match Test series has been the most physical he has ever experienced and believes the shape of rugby players will have to start changing if serious injuries are to be prevented. Robson has been the Lions doctor on five tours but he has never known anything like the levels of intensity and attrition witnessed during the tour. "I would have to say this has been the most physical tour, the most physical Test matches I have been involved in," said Robson.

"I think we are reaching a level where the players have got too big for their skill levels. "I think they have become a little too muscle-bound and too bulky. "I think you may see changes in the physical nature of the player that brings them back a little - I hope so - in order to speed up the game and introduce a higher level of skill." pradley@thenational.ae