The Springboks won the three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions on the back of a relentless defensive and aerial kicking performance.

For all the Lions’ talk about pursuing a bolder, more expansive approach, they failed to make a meaningful impression on the South African juggernaut.

All three matches were fiercely contested, low-scoring affairs. As expected, defence dominated attack for much of the series, and the team that made the most of its relatively few opportunities emerged victorious.

In the first and third Tests, a single score was the difference and on each occasion the losers were made to lament their own missed chances.

For South Africa, there were the two disallowed tries and the late Handré Pollard miss on goal which cost them the series-opener. The Lions will forever regret their failure to capitalise on a clear try-scoring chance on the right wing in the third Test, as well as the decisions taken by the leadership to turn down several kickable penalties in favour of a lineout in the corner.

Six tries were scored over the course of the series, with the hosts outscoring the visitors in this department by four to two. The Boks obtained more reward for their endeavour, and it was evident that their game plan – however it was perceived by the opposition, neutrals as well as the media – was largely effective.

The Boks were far from clinical in the series-opener. In the second match, they took their chances after Makazole Mapimpi collected an inspired Handré Pollard cross-kick and Faf de Klerk produced a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am to chase. In the decider, it was Cheslin Kolbe who finished after the hosts launched a counter-strike down the right-hand flank.

South Africa used their defence as a weapon. Players such as Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende were dominant at the gainline, while De Klerk, Am and others routinely rushed the ball-carriers in the wider channels in order to kill the attacking momentum. 

The Boks bombarded the Lions with aerial kicks and looked to feed off opposition mistakes. This brand of counter-attacking rugby – which brought them success at the 2019 World Cup – earned them a great reward in the shape of a Lions series trophy.

There were moments when the Lions had the Boks scrambling, and Finn Russell’s performance in the third Test showed that the South Africans can be stretched. Then again, the Boks – who conceded one try over the course of the three 2019 World Cup playoffs – conceded only two tries over a period of 240 minutes.

It’s also worth reiterating that they were without their defensive talisman Duane Vermeulen for the entire series, and that they were without key players such as Pieter-Steph du Toit and De Klerk for the decider. Somehow they managed to take these losses in their stride and go implement their strategy to devastating effect.

Credit must go to Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus for the manner in which they managed the players over the course of the series. While the Lions and many others have criticised the Boks’ style of play, the players have continued to believe that it is the best route to success.

The conviction of the defensive performance, particularly in the third Test, was something to behold. Late in the game, when the Lions were hammering away at the South African tryline in search of a score that would take them five to seven points clear, Nienaber could be heard screaming, “Attitude! Attitude! Attitude!” from the coaching box. 

As tired as they were, the Boks held that line as if their lives depended on it. And when the Lions eventually made the mistake, the momentum swung in the hosts’ favour. 

The result of the series will strengthen the resolve of Nienaber and his charges as they head into the Rugby Championship, and as they build towards the 2023 World Cup. They were not as clinical in this Lions series as they were at the 2019 World Cup, and this was to be expected given their preparations were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Boks will grow stronger in the coming months and – contrary to what is being said in wider rugby circles – they will continue to believe that they have a winning formula.