Listen to anyone involved in the British & Irish Lions’ agonising defeat by South Africa in the second Test in 2009 and one word keeps on coming up: brutal. It was a seventh successive Test loss for the Lions but the nature of it – Ian McGeechan’s men bloodied, defeated but unbowed after losing the most gladiatorial of contests with the clock turned red – did much to enhance the myth surrounding the touring side. Despite defeat the Lions’ reputation had been restored after being thrashed by New Zealand four years earlier, but at what cost?
The fallout from that brutal contest in Pretoria has come to be discussed like old war stories. Five Lions players and one Springbok were taken to hospital afterwards. Schalk Burger received a yellow card for an eye-gouge to Luke Fitzgerald but a subsequent eight-week ban. Bakkies Botha was also banned for two weeks for a dangerous charge on Adam Jones which resulted in a protest from the Springboks during the third Test a week later. Indeed, it is worth revisiting the Springboks’ attitude at the time. Their head coach, Pieter de Villiers, said in 2009: “Rugby is a contact sport – so is dancing.
“If you are clued up on this game, you will have seen all that happened. Do we really respect the game? If not why not go to the nearest ballet shop, buy a tutu and enjoy it? There will be collisions in rugby. If people want to make it soft because we won a series, I cannot do anything about it. We have waited for this moment for 29 years: we won the series and we are happy about it.”
If the 2009 second Test is cemented in legend it can also be seen as a watershed moment for the sport. Eleven years on, when Eddie Jones promised brutality was coming France’s way in the Six Nations last year, he was faced with a considerable backlash. There may have been something lost in translation in that particular instance but the point remains that whereas once the attrition rate in Pretoria was to be celebrated, it belongs firmly in the past. Clearly much has been done to clean up the game’s image and a similar contest is unthinkable these days – red cards would have reduced the match to something like seven-a-side. But to listen to concerns raised by Dr James Robson, a veteran of six Lions tours, after the third Test in Johannesburg in 2009 is instructive.
“We’re reaching a level where players have gotten too big for their skill levels,” Robson said. “They’ve become too muscle-bound and too bulky and I think you may see changes in their physical nature in order to speed up the game and introduce a higher level of skill.
“As a spectacle the games have delivered but I still have anxieties about the number of matches players are subjected to in the northern hemisphere. I hope, at some point, that welfare will become a bigger part of player management. There’s a lot of talk and rhetoric but, for the players’ sake, I hope more action is taken.”
Twelve years later it is rare that administrators say anything without a cursory nod to player welfare, but say something often enough and it loses all meaning. The question, then, is whether or rather to what extent Robson’s concerns have been addressed. The 2009 Lions tour took place 14 years after the sport went professional. Players who were nearing the end of their careers by then, or had recently retired, had gone through their entire careers in the professional era. The class of 2009 were the second wave, where professionalism had led to the bulkiness of which Robson expressed concerns.
Certainly much has been done to protect players in the intervening 12 years. As Bryan Habana recently admitted, his key try in the second Test came about from a poor defensive read from Brian O’Driscoll, who surely would have been immediately removed from the field after his prior head injury sustained after a sickening clash of heads with Danie Rossouw.
But Robson’s other point – that players are effectively playing too many matches – is one that requires closer examination. “You have to look at the midweek games and the length of the tour,” he said. “Personally, I would like a slightly longer tour with less frequent games. I don’t want to lessen Lions tours but perhaps it should be eight games spread over eight weeks.”
The current tour is eight matches spread over five weeks – down from 10 in New Zealand in 2017, not to mention the warmup match against Japan in Edinburgh. If Elliot Daly comes off the bench in the second Test on Saturday he will have featured in every match the Lions have played in South Africa so far. The players are due to return to the UK and Ireland soon after the third Test on 7 August but, given quarantine complications, it will be more than a year since rugby restarted after the pandemic-enforced pause by the time they return home.
Of course, the pandemic has meant that everyone has had to adapt, but it was only a year ago that the unions were proclaiming groundbreaking talks with unprecedented cooperation to achieve a global calendar with greater synergy between the two hemispheres on the basis that less is potentially more. Such talk has gone quiet now and there remains an uneasy relationship between the all-powerful clubs in France and England and the unions.
Indeed, it has been instructive to be in South Africa for the current Lions tour, in a country ravaged by Covid-19, violence and unemployment. The unions, lest we forget, refused to postpone the tour by 12 months because of their World Cup preparations but it has been heartbreaking to witness first-hand just how far the economic boost from 30,000 supporters would have brought to the country – albeit 12 months later than planned. The unions’ attitude hardly reflects a holistic approach and while, 12 years on, the progress made on Robson’s concerns over players’ physicality is evident, the same cannot be said about those over the number of games on the calendar.