Losers can’t be heroes

Once again the British and Irish are on a high in celebrating losers, writes Keo in his Business Day newspaper column.

There is no disgrace in losing heroically was the tiresome media reflection of a yet another Lions Test defeat and yet another Lions series defeat in the southern hemisphere.

Perhaps the time has come for the British & Irish Lions to tour Argentina or the Pacific Islands to restore a winning culture.

One of the reasons South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have a winning rugby culture is that defeats such as the one in Pretoria on Saturday are never celebrated. When a team leads 19-8, enjoys field position advantage and a 71% dominance of possession and still loses then there can be no heroes. Not in South Africa, not in New Zealand and not in Australia.

In Britain and Ireland this morning mortals have been cast as giants when instead they should be castigated as emotional dwarfs for their inability to shut out a Springbok team in free fall because of the lack of pedigree among the coaching staff.

Players run the Springbok team, but clearly every player still needs someone to put together a coherent game plan and to coach and manage the team.

The Boks, without this structure and guidance, played like individuals and not surprisingly against the playing limitations of the tourists this was still enough to win.

The indictment of the Lions is that they could lose from such a healthy position and the indictment of the Boks is that it needed a 55m penalty with the last kick of the game to secure the match and series win when the gulf in class is 20 points.

The Lions were gifted a one-man advantage within 30 seconds when Schalk Burger was sin-binned for a moment of stupidity and with it came a 10-point start before 10 minutes had been played.

The tourists, we know, have perfected the art of telling a losing story with such seductive appeal it makes winning seem cold and secondary. Who wants to win when you can lose and be immortalized?

The Springboks deserved the win because in the last 20 minutes the South Africans were the ones attacking and mentally their players wanted victory, whereas the Lions were content to settle for a draw and with it a drawn series at best with just the one Test in three to play.

Contrast the approach of the two captains in the final quarter. John Smit’s Boks trailed 19-15 and got an easy three pointer. Smit did not kick the three points to reduce the deficit, but attacked the goalline for five points and the psychology of a lead in the final 10 minutes.

Lions captain Paul O’Connell, with five minutes to play, had a chance to level the scores at 25-25 from 25m out or go for a try and a possible win. He opted for the kick and a draw and allowed the Springboks an 80m advantage from the resulting kick-off. Instead of defending their line, the Boks had the chance to push for victory from a kick-off that would transfer field position by 80m.

The Springbok last quarter substitutions also need to be put into perspective, as does the criticism of not starting with Morne Steyn ahead of Ruan Pienaar because of the former’s superior goalkicking.

Steyn, in the Super 14, averaged 75%, although he kicked at 80% in the last three matches. Pienaar, in the first Test win against the Lions in Durban, kicked 80%.

It was right to start with Pienaar, but it was wrong not to introduce Steyn earlier because Steyn’s line-kicking game is superior and so is his use of the up and under on his home ground in Pretoria.

Another substitution that has been lauded is that of openside specialst Heinrich Brussow, whose introduction coincided with the Lions getting slower ball from the breakdown, and in the last five minutes next to no ball.

Brussow, though, would not have been on the field had Brian O’Driscoll not knocked out Danie Rossouw with an illegal shoulder charge tackle and clash of the heads. Injury forced a decision to introduce Brussow; not any tactical appreciation of the match situation because it was Rossouw who was preferred to Brussow as Juan Smith’s replacement.

O’Driscoll should have been carded for the no-arms tackle, as should Andy Sheridan for his constant off-the-ball antagonism, especially when he punched Bok replacement lock Andries Bekker in the balls.

Burger was rightly carded and Bakkies Botha should have gone along with Sheridan for his charge on Adam Jones. There are two sides to every story and there were two sides to this Test when it came to what went on in those dark alleys we call rucks and mauls.

Brussow’s impact was as obvious as it had been in the first 50 minutes in Durban’s Test victory, as his style troubles the tourists more than it will Australia and New Zealand, and Morne Steyn provided calmness in the last-minute chaos.

The efforts of individuals masked an international of poor quality that appeared spectacular because of the closeness in score and frenetic finish.

There was physicality and desperation from the Lions in the first 40 minutes and the Boks in the last 20 minutes, and individuals like Jamie Roberts, O’Driscoll, Simon Shaw, Adam Jones, Rob Kearney, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Smith, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Brussow and Morne Steyn added the power and polish to the occasion.

There have been club matches with as much drama, but equally there have been club games in which the basics of the game have been as poorly executed.

Had the Boks lost heroically 28-25 there would be a national inquisition this morning. It is why we as a rugby nation win more than we lose.

We don’t celebrate mediocrity or losers.

Think about a Test played with uncontested scrums for the last 35 minutes and it pretty much sums up the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.