On Saturday evening, the age-old question in sport was on the lips of every Lions fan: “What if?”
What if Liam Williams had found Josh Adams? What if the men in red had taken the points rather than going for the jugular? What if Finn Russell had been available for selection throughout the Test series?
The overriding feeling from this British and Irish Lions tour was one of missed opportunities for Warren Gatland’s side, but for Peter Winterbottom, the standard of rugby which was on show made this particular series extremely “disappointing.”
Winterbottom, who toured with the Lions in 1983 and 1993, was pleased to have some rugby to watch during the summer but despite the drama and tense finish to the third and final Test, the style of rugby on display left a lot to be desired.
"All in all, it was a bit disappointing,” Winterbottom tells TRU. “Firstly, my feeling was the tour should have been postponed. They should have sat round a table and the unions should have sorted it out, but they weren’t prepared to do that and I think that is a massive shame and I think it was a big slight on the Lions.
“The Lions is such a big entity in rugby and to water it down the way it had been with no supporters, in my view, was wrong. Looking at it differently, the warm-up games were generally one-sided and the three Tests, plus the South Africa ‘A’ game, was pretty negative rugby.
“The South Africans, in fairness to them, they do it particularly well. Their defence is superb, they are very physical, they get good turnovers and they chase the kicks very well. Apart from that, you can’t say they are moving the game forward.”
From a Lions perspective, two tries in three Test matches isn’t a good return and their performances got the treatment they deserved.
The high-tempo game, which Gatland stressed would be a weapon for the tourists, was rarely seen and we only saw whether the Lions would sink or swim if they rolled the dice when Finn Russell was introduced following the injury to Dan Biggar in the third Test.
South Africa’s tactics, as Winterbottom alludes to, are effective and has yielded a World Cup and now a Lions series triumph but with the defence of their Rugby Championship title on the horizon, will the Springboks' stilted approach be undone by one of New Zealand, Australia or Argentina?
“My view is you have to reach the Springboks physically because otherwise you have no chance in a series and obviously the Lions were on the wrong end of the scoreline, but you aren’t going to beat them at their own game all the time and the Lions couldn’t really make their mark,” Winterbottom added.
“I know some of Warren’s teams in the past have played some decent stuff, but he likes to play a very organised game. They don’t take unnecessary risks. He can only use what he has got so maybe he should have gone with someone like Finn Russell at 10 to start with on Saturday.
“The midfield combinations didn’t quite work in the Tests to the extent where we had the potential to get the ball moving and get players out wide into space. We didn’t really have the guys to be able to do that.
“You have got to look at the New Zealand-Australia game on Saturday morning and look at the difference in entertainment, the difference in rugby styles. It is just the way forward, isn’t it? Is it the kick and bash style of South Africa or is it the way New Zealand and Australia play? I know what I’d rather watch.”
In terms of the Lions, the hope is they learn lessons from their own approach as they slowly begin to rebuild for Australia 2025.
Whilst there is a sense that we never really saw the best of what the class of 2021 could offer, the future does seem bright for the Lions and Winterbottom also includes England in that bracket.
“I think certainly from England’s point of view, we have seen glimpses this summer of what is to come and they have to kick on now,” he says.
“They were poor earlier this year and they have got so much potential, so many good players and now we hope Eddie [Jones] picks them. Marcus Smith is certainly one of those players. It is funny when people say, ‘Has he had enough experience?’ but he has won the Premiership, played over 100 games, and is still only 22.
“He is as experienced as anyone needs to be to play Test rugby and I would expect him to be the fly-half for England alongside Joe Simmonds, who is another young guy who will be pushing him. With Marcus, he has the ability to transfer his performances to the Test arena and I hope he is in teams who have the ambition to play the way he wants to play.”
The Harlequins star certainly offered a new dimension for the Lions during his stellar display against the Stormers in the final warm-up game and whilst there might be a fairly blank canvas for the Lions in terms of player personnel, a reshuffle of the coaching staff may also be on the cards.
Gatland’s era as head coach might be coming to a close after being involved in the last four tours so which route does Winterbottom think the Lions should go down?
“I think the Lions probably do need a fresh start,” says Winterbottom, who was coached by Jim Telfer and Sir Ian McGeechan during his two tours.
“I always think with the national side that an Englishman should be coaching England and the Lions should be coached by someone from the home unions. That has always been my belief because I think you have got to give people the carrot to go for. I know Warren was with Wales, but there is now enough good coaches in the UK.
“Gregor Townsend is obviously right up there, but I don’t think you necessarily have to look at international coaches. As far as England are concerned, you have Rob Baxter or even someone like Dean Richards who are certainly more than capable of coaching England and coaching the Lions.
“Ronan O’Gara is another name for four years time, but it is all about getting that combination of coaches right. Obviously, the head coach is the most important one but getting his understudies and getting his team of coaches together is absolutely crucial so it will be interesting to see how it all works out.”
Winterbottom now has his own coaching to focus on over the next coming weeks and months as the new National League Rugby season draws ever closer.
The former England international is Director of Rugby at National Two South outfit Esher, who get their 2021/22 campaign up and running against Rochford Hundred on September 4th.
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After a year of wall-to-wall rugby at the top level, the National Leagues - and the divisions below - will be thrust into the limelight once again after 18 months in the shadows.
“The club has been massively active in getting themselves organised and putting on events ahead of the season,” Winterbottom says. “For the Lions games, hundreds of people have been down there and watching the games in tents outside or in the clubhouse which has been great.
“We are just really desperate to get into our games now! We have been back in training for a few weeks. We are starting with a trial game this week and we start a week on Saturday with these proper pre-season warm-up games [against Blackheath and Rosslyn Park] and then into it.
“I think you have got to hope that people will come and watch again. I hope people haven’t got out of the habit of going out on a Saturday afternoon and watching the game down at your local club.
“I do think everyone is looking forward to it and certainly with Esher, we have been able to keep good communications with our members and I hope they will all be flocking back to watch some decent rugby.”