Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson has told us that he believes the Lions squad will look back at their 2-1 series defeat to South Africa as “the one that got away from them” after missing out on a first series triumph since 2013.

Despite winning the first Test of the series in South Africa, the Lions went on to lose the next two to the world champions, including the 19-16 third Test defeat on Saturday.

Dawson was involved in a similar result when the Lions lost the 2001 series 2-1 to Australia, and he feels the current squad will be hurting massively right now after coming so close.

“Unfortunately for the Lions players, this will be the one that got away from them,” Dawson said. “I had the same experience in 2001 where, whenever I think or talk about that tour to Australia, it’s always one that you think should have been a Lions win. The Lions were dominant for the vast majority of this Test series and they let that slip away, and I think if you analyse those three Test matches, it was probably four halves to two to the Lions and yet they’ve lost the series 2-1.

“I think it will probably burn them. It will burn the individuals for a while because you don’t win Lions series very often. The last one was in 2013, the previous one was 1997, and the next one is not going to be until 2025 so there are another 12 years between those Australia Lions tours. It’s going to be difficult for those players, there will be an element of regret from a lot of the players and coaches because it was definitely in their grasp. They will have to reflect on this series at some stage. 2001 was very difficult to swallow and took quite a while for us all to realise what an opportunity we’d missed, and I think these players will feel the same.”

Dawson felt where the Lions went wrong was not putting enough points on the scoreboard while they were on top of the game.

“It was very disappointing, there were ample opportunities for the Lions to score points and build on what was a fairly positive first half,” Dawson said. “But it’s amazing – under extreme pressure and fatigue – what your brain does to you. It worked for the Ken Owens try, kicking to the corner, taking a line-out and driving it over, but there were opportune moments to just score three points, regroup, get another three points, regroup and just keep the foot on the pedal as there were significant moments in the game, long periods of the game, where the Lions were on top but just not scoring enough points. Sometimes you need to keep the scoreboard ticking along.

“You can look towards the end of the game and the penalty that gave Morne Steyn the opportunity, but the game was lost well before then by the Lions’ decision-making. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t but history will tell you that Lions series deciders come down to one-score games. It was always going to be the case so points were precious.”

Despite the defeat on Saturday, Dawson was hugely impressed with the performance of Finn Russell after he came off the bench early in the game.

“Finn Russell was excellent and made a huge difference to the way the Lions played,” he said. “He showed that not only is he such a skilful and visionary player but when he’s amongst fellow great players, he can be super special. If he was an All Black, you’d be saying he’s the next Dan Carter, he’s that good.

“And I think he realised that. You could see in his interview afterwards, this was a real seminal moment in his career where he can do this at the highest level. Why is he not doing this week-in, week-out for Scotland and Racing 92? It wasn’t risky rugby, it was imaginative, the right plays, the right passes, the right kicks. Hopefully, it was a big moment for Finn and going into the next Lions tour in four years, he should be thinking he’ll be the main man.”

Warren Gatland has now led the Lions on three different tours but Dawson feels he is still the right man for the job in 2025.

“It would be great if Warren did another tour,” he said. “He’s obviously very good at it and given the time constraints and general constraints around this tour, the adversity that he, the players, the staff and the Lions as a whole overcame was magnificent, and they were a whisker away from winning a Test series. He’s won in Australia so he’s got that under his belt, he’s got a drawn series in New Zealand, he’s been nicked at the death with the last kick of the game in South Africa – he’s got a very good record as Lions coach. Why would we want to change that? You’re going to have to give me a really good reason why someone else should be brought in.

“He manages it fantastically well and picks good coaches to go alongside him so I’m very much along the line here that he should stay in charge. This is not just about rugby coaching, this is about bringing elite players together to go down to the southern hemisphere and win. It takes more than just the players. You’ve got to bring them together, organise them, you’ve got to motivate them and you have to understand the Lions brand. It’s not an easy task at all and we’ve got someone who’s very good at it.”

While Dawson wants Gatland to stay on in the job, with captain Alun Wyn Jones looking like having played his last Lions Test, the ex-England man wants to see Maro Itoje succeed the Welshman.

“Alun Wyn Jones deserves all the accolades for being a modern-day Lions great,” Dawson said. “He’s been one of the great, great rugby players and Lions. To play 12 straight Tests in this day and age, I just can’t see it happening ever again, it’s that good a record.

“He will be missed but the sooner I see someone like Maro Itoje pick up the armband the better. I want to see him captaining England, I want to see him captaining the Lions. He’s such a force, such a performer. An incredible player, and an incredible man. It couldn’t be more obvious that he should be captaining his country and putting his hat in the ring to be the next captain for the Lions tour in 2025.”

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