There was justice in the manner of the Springboks’ series win against the British & Irish Lions.
Remember when the Springboks scored three tries to nil in Durban in 1997 and Percy Montgomery, Henry Honiball and Andre Joubert missed six penalties and conversions, while the Lions kicked five penalties and one Jeremy Guscott drop goal to win 18-15 and take the series – a series in which the Boks lost 2-1 but outscored the Lions nine tries to three.
There was nothing heroic about the losing Boks. Carel du Plessis, as coach, would be gone soon after that and Nick Mallett would take the Springboks on a record-equalling winning run.
So much has been made of that series win and of how Ian McGeechan masterminded the victory, when in fact had South Africa had an experienced coach and kicked just 20% of their kicks it would have been another failed Lions trip to the southern hemisphere.
When South Africans tried to find solace in winning the try-scoring nine to three and in scoring three tries to nil in Durban, all we got in return was a one-liner, which was ‘to look at the scoreboard’.
It was something similar when Jonny Wilkinson kicked a drop goal with 30 seconds to go to win the 2003 World Cup for England. That Australia was the better side did not matter much, the Aussies were told to look at the scoreboard.
When the Boks won the 1995 World Cup through a drop goal, the British media wrote the best team lost and that rugby was not served through the best defensive team beating the best attacking team.
And so it goes on … when the British (we’ll leave the good Irish blokes out of this one) win, it doesn’t matter how it is achieved. When they lose, they’re heroes and the winners are an after thought.
That’s why the nature of the Boks’ series win delights me so much. Instead of smashing them by 20 points in each Test, which they should have done given the class difference between the two sides, they effectively taunted the visitors and their supporting cheerleaders (in the stands and in the press box) by giving them a sniff of the bone but never allowing them to get their clumsy paws on it.
When a drop goal won them the series in 1997, it was as emphatic as 50 points. When a penalty gives the Boks a series win 12 years later, it is an injustice. God, I love it to see the British so tortured, especially when they arrived in South Africa with no hope and gradually believed there would be a miracle.
One of the nicest blokes in the British media is Sunday Times correspondent Nick Cain. He is a good professional who is passionate about the Lions. In 1997 I predicted a 3-0 series win to the Boks, despite Carel du Plessis being the coach. When we lost 2-1 Nick cornered me in a pub and told me to admit that the Lions had done the Boks.
‘Admit it,’ said Nick. ‘We did you. Come on. We did you.’
There was no defence of nine tries to three or of having a coach in charge who had never coached a school team. I admitted to him. ‘You did us.’
It was then as if the gods had conspired against me when after the brilliance of the 2007 World Cup win, Peter de Villiers would take charge of the Boks against the Lions. Despite this I predicted a 3-0 series win against pretenders who were given a billing of contender. This time I never feared another of those series-ending conversations with the man affectionately called ‘Moose’, because one team was simply too good to lose and another was just not good enough to win.
Despite no coach, no apparent continuity in game plan and giving the Lions a one-man and 10 point advantage, I’d be able to respond with a one-liner of my own if I bumped into the Moose.
‘Admit it Nick,’ I could say. ‘We did you.’
I’d never say it because the reality is there is no achievement in doing the best of British and Irish, even if we did it playing as individuals and not as a cohesive, well coached team.
What I would say, though, is justice could not have been sweeter because of the way it was done … by three points.
Think of all the trees that have been saved because of the 40-plus British & Irish Lions tour books that won’t be published at Christmas. And thank the Springboks for a victory that was overdue and environmentally friendly.