I find myself in broad agreement with Tom Hollingworth’s view that the greatest elite-level sports, tournaments and games are severely diminished when they take place in stadia devoid of fans and spectators.
The Covid pandemic has been (and still will be for some time into the future) extremely tough upon all concerned because the “thrill” – never mind the “cash” aspect – of sporting contests is so enhanced by an accompanying “excited and involved” crowd atmosphere.
When it comes to the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa – now just six days away from its first Test Match – currently lurching at “half-cock” around the host country in the midst of a serious Covid-19 situation (affecting even the teams) together with widespread social unrest, violence and looting caused by the fall-out of a legal case involving a former President and alleged corruption and fraud, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that postponement/cancellation would have been a far better option.
I know that this would have been tough upon the players. Sport at elite level is never a long career and I accept that for every Northern Hemisphere Home Country male rugby player the opportunity to become a member of the “Lions” – or indeed for a Southern Hemisphere player to play against them – is one of the ultimate “badges of honour” it is possible to receive.
All the above registered, I have now watched highlights of one Lions match on the current tour and then three of the complete “midweek” warm-up games.
As games of rugby, with the exception of the tilt against a South Africa “A” team containing eight or more Springboks from the victorious Rugby World Cup-winning squad of 2019 (this a narrow victory for South Africa “A” after a brutal and even-matched contest), these have been one-sided disappointments.
The fact is that the Lions players inhabit a strange limbo-land in which – with Test Match selection still very much up for grabs – individuals are plainly “playing for themselves”, thereby hoping to impress Warren Gatland … and yet simultaneously, of course, the key individuals that Gatland and his coaches are looking for are either “specific animals that can do specific jobs” and/or those who can combine well with others to make parts of the chosen “tactical system” work smoothly.
Last night’s 49-3 victory over the Stormers was a vital opportunity for three Lions players – two of them recovering from injury.
Firstly, powerhouse Irish centre Robbie Henshaw – definitely a Test Match contender as a big unit capable of getting the Lions on the front foot – was making his return after suffering a hamstring pull.
He hardly “pulled up any trees” that would have nailed-on his Test selection but (in a way) that wasn’t the point: he managed to play 50-plus minutes without breaking down and that was probably all that the coaches were looking for at this stage.
Secondly – and the biggest news of the day – was the return of Welsh talisman lock Alun Wyn Jones – the original choice as skipper of Lions who had to withdraw after suffering an injury in the warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield.
He celebrated his return to the touring party with a 27-minute appearance as a substitute just three weeks after dislocating his left shoulder. An amazing feat from a truly great player, though I have to say that personally I wouldn’t risk playing him in the First Test Match.
The third player of particular interest yesterday was Marcus Smith, the 22 year old fly half who only made his England debut a fortnight ago and was then immediately called into the Lions squad as a “injury- cover” precaution last week.
Despite (I should imagine) barely having been introduced to some of his Lions team mates, he added flashes of stardust to the Lions win and landed all his shots at goal.
See here for a link to the comments of Sky Sports pundits Maggie Alfonsi and Ronan O’Gara (the latter one of the all-time great Irish stand-offs) –
[ADVICE TO READERS FOLLOWING THIS LINK: TO OBTAIN THE VIDEO “SOUND” PLEASE PRESS THE MUTE”ICON” AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PICTURE BEFORE PLAYING THE VIDEO] – MARCUS SMITH REVIEW
In fact – if sheer energy and dogged grit counts for anything – the one Lions player who played himself straight into the Lions Test squad in yesterday match was England second choice hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.
He was outstanding in both attack and defence, always putting his head where it hurt and getting the Lions pack on the front foot at the breakdown when it mattered.
It wouldn’t surprise me if he even edged out Jamie George as the starting hooker on this evidence.