Lions face uncomfortable questions about their future after ill-tempered South Africa tour

Warren Gatland has not ruled out coming back to coach the side, but the time feels right to move on after the loss to the Springboks

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As finishes go, it was one for the storybook. A 37-year-old warrior closing in on retirement, five years on from the last time he played a Test, and 12 from when he won his debut series against the same opposition in identical circumstances, kicking the winning points in the death throes of the finale.

But were Morne Steyn’s late heroics in Cape Town on Saturday enough to redeem the British & Irish Lions’ 2021 tour of South Africa? Hardly. It was a series that only a mother could love.

Diehard fans of either side, or those with a strong emotional investment, might think the idea of “entertaining rugby” is a frippery in Lions matches.

Winning is enough, whether it is done in an arm-wrestle, via a push over try, or a series of penalty kicks, or anything more fancy. You want running rugby? Go watch sevens, or the Barbarians.

Fair enough. And it is true that each of the last two Lions series have at least had enthralling climaxes, with all three results possible right until the final play. Each of those two series deciders have been sport at its most compelling.

But surely it is not too much to ask for just a little better than the fare served up in Cape Town?

Because what exactly were the standout moments to treasure in the past three weeks?

Where was the 2021 equivalent of the Ugo Monye breakaway try from 2009, or the George North fireman’s lift on Israel Folau from 2013, or the Sean O’Brien try for the ages from 2017?

Erm, Finn Russell’s kick pass to Josh Adams on Saturday, maybe? At a real push.

Other than that, the salient memories will be spiteful ones. Of two Lions players being accused of biting. Of a 62-minute half in the second Test because the officials were too paralysed by fear of reprisals online to make decisions without the aid of a TV referral.

And, overwhelmingly so, of South African “waterboy” Rassie Erasmus resorting to Vimeo to address perceived injustices.

Sure, all those incidents colour the game, too. Warren Gatland was lampooned in the press four years ago in New Zealand, in a series that was also heated.

The Lions head coach was portrayed as a clown on one front page. He responded by attending his next press conferences with a red nose.

That sort of levity was absent in South Africa. At no point did it feel like the barbs being traded were part of some phoney war, at that there was respect and good humour underlying it all. It just all felt pretty hateful.

The Springboks, of course, have 12 more years to cheer their success until the Lions turn up again. But where do the touring side go from here?

Gatland has left the door ajar for a return in four years’ time, in a similar way to what he did at the end of the New Zealand tour.

And, Saturday’s result notwithstanding, his time in charge of the Lions has been highly successful. A series win in Australia, a draw against arguably one of the greatest sides of all-time in New Zealand, and a late, narrow defeat to world champions South Africa.

Australia 2025 feels, in the present circumstances, like one tour too many for him, though.

For the majority of his tenure, he was as good as embedded with Lions’ ways as he was the coach of Wales. It will be difficult for him to have such a sound grasp of the way the wind is blowing in the UK and Ireland, though, now that he is back in his native New Zealand.

This far out, it is impossible to say who will be best placed to assume the mantle from him.

If the decision was made today, then Gregor Townsend, one of Gatland’s assistants in South Africa, would appear well placed.

He is steeped in Lions lore, having starred in the 1997 win in South Africa, and has been attracting some attention with the changes he has overseen with Scotland.

And, perhaps vitally for the future of the Lions, Townsend might herald a move away from the game of attrition to one where, every so often, they might want to try something more aesthetically pleasing.

Updated: August 09, 2021, 10:11 AM