- 08 Aug 21
Destiny was on the side of the Springboks as they ran out 19-16 winners against the Lions in Saturday night's final test of the current series. The LIons played well in what was an intense and nervy affair. Ultimately, however, the 'Boks deserved their win – just about!
It was a raucous end to a noisy test series.
Aggro, back-chat and hour-long moans about the refereeing system were all part of the build-up to the first Lions test decider on South African soil in over 100 years. The bitching, animosity and arguments carried on right up to test-match day.
And then it all went quiet.
Cape Town Stadium was like a ghost town. Mist hung in the air, undisturbed before game-time. Deep in the bowels of the dressing rooms Bongi Mbonambe led the cries of “Bokke Bokke” as they prepared themselves for the test of their lives. The Lions readied themselves for one last stand as a unit.
And so they played in that eerie silence, the only sounds in the park the booming thud of man on man contact and the individual cries of ‘Boks and Lions players alike, as they exerted every sinew and tendon. It was tense, often tasty stuff.
The Lions started poorly but switched things around sufficiently to take control of the first-half. They jogged in for their oranges in the ascendency – and in the lead. But the ‘Boks came back with a vengeance. They hassled, harried and bullied the Lions in the first 20 minutes of the second-half which made for ominous viewing from a Lions perspective.
Things were getting nervy.
Occasions like this will test your bottle and composure. In the event, fans of the Lions were left with their fingernails in ribbons after what turned out to be a monumental test match. Going into the last 15 minutes, the match was there to be won or lost.
FINN AT THE WHEEL
Rewind: the Lions looked shaky at the start, failing to catch a couple of easy balls. Duhan Van Der Merwe dropped a catchable box kick from Ali Price after a classy Lions exit.
An injury to Dan Biggar early on may have had Lions fans feeling jittery, with mad-cap maverick Finn Russell strolling on. It’s a cliché to say he’s hit or miss at this stage, but everyone’s favourite Scotsman grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck on his Lions test debut.
He played close to the gain-line and exploited slight cracks in the South Africans defence, putting Liam Williams through holes on a number of occasions. His cross-field kick to Josh Adams with the ‘Bok defence breathing down his unruffled feathers seemed suicidal. But the Racing 92 man’s off-the-cuff passing paid dividends for the Lions.
His smooth and precise operation of the Lions' offensive delivered a penalty for the Lions in South African territory. An aggressive kick for touch led to the Lions mauling the South Africans over their own try-line in the same corner as in the first test. Ken Owens, the Sheriff, slammed the ball down.
The Lions looked to be in control of the contest – but looks can be deceptive. The Springboks plugged away with typical abrasive forward-oriented rugby and they scored the try of the series through Cheslin Kolbe. The Lions kicked to Jasper Wiese who bobbled the ball when it came to Lukhanyo Am who drew a defender and offloaded beautifully. Willie ale Roux remained composed to unleash Kolbe. It was a phenomenal try from a sensational player and it felt like the pendulum had swung.
But the Lions remained well in the game.
Finn showed his silky hands and rugby intelligence after Morné Steyn kicked the ‘Boks 16-13 ahead. He flicked the ball out the back door, gave no-look passes and trusted the men around him as all good 10’s do. It led to a potentially decisive scrum on the ‘Boks’ five metre line after a brave kick to the corner to win a game and avoid another drawn series. The South Africans won the scrum. It seemed Lions hopes were dashed.
LIONDS BRAVERY MEETS 'BOKS BRUTALITY
Warren Gatland’s men had different ideas.
The game was summed up shortly after that scrum when the South Africans mauled the Lions for 25 metres. Conor Murray won the ball back after Janjties fumbled and the Lions took their chances, flinging the ball out wide.
The ball came to Henshaw who looked lost – but he cut against the grain and scythed through the South African defence. Lukhanyo Am smashed Murray from the side. The Lions were awarded a penalty.
The Lions proceeded to play their best rugby of the entire series in this test. Forwards were combining with beautiful tip-on passes in intricate pod formations. The backs kicked beautifully and, fuelled by anger, carried with skill. All until Courtney Lawes infringed. Morné Steyn slotted the dead-cert kick for South Africa and minds were racing, returning to that fatal moment 12 years ago.
But the game continued.
The Lions tipped the ball back from kick off as the ‘Boks rallied for one last display of attritional defence. It was brutal, physical energy-sapping. Siya Kolisi led the ‘Bok charge as they tried to see out the series. The Lions hustled and kept on going. They earned a scrum in the middle of the pitch and it was last chance for the Lions.
Had Gregor Townsend devised a plan for this exact situation? Would the Lions scream to a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat? Was there one last chink in the South Africa armour?
The answer was no.
The ‘Boks won the scrum penalty and Morné Steyn shattered Lions hearts as he had 12 years ago.
Our Irish Lions
Tadhg Furlong was solid in a dominant Lions scrum, benefitting from the addition of Wyn Jones to what was a back-pedalling limp scrum from last week. Grew into the carrying game to offer his typical combination of grunt and guile. The Wexford man has etched his name into Lions history having started a mammoth six consecutive Lions tests.
Jack Conan has made a huge name for himself on this tour. The Wicklow man accepted South African re-starts with joy and returned them with interest with his trademark footwork. He didn’t put a foot wrong defensively and did well to put Wiese over the touchline. The 28-year old plucked the ball from the back of the scrum with poise and intelligence. Massive achievement for a player whose stock has risen dramatically.
Bundee Aki showed his worth with his crash-ball carries and his explosive power. He played on the edge of the referee’s whistle defensively and was pinged for a high tackle early on. The Connacht bruiser was a welcome physical presence and energised the men around him with his enthusiasm and firepower.
Robbie Henshaw benefitted from having his pal Bundee outside him, and showed the attacking nous he possesses. He gained more purchase from his carries this week and was a pillar of defence. He also distributed well in his more comfortable position of 13 and was a constant threat to the South African defence.
Conor Murray was excellent as he came on as captain and marshalled the Lions around the pitch. He worked the referee well and showed his class as he played outside of his usual style, passing quickly off the base of the ruck and always sniffing gaps for his teammates to exploit. The Muster man offered a new dynamic for the Lions.
It just wasn’t to be.
It was poetic to see the 37-year old Morné Steyn slot that kick over, to win the decider. Alun Wyn Jones and his brave Lions will be devastated to end up the defeated party – but, overall, it must be said, the ‘Boks deserved it.
It will be 12 more years of hurt before we see the Lions in South Africa again. Unless, of course, by then the Lions are touring Mars, with Richard Branson in as the new Warren Gatland. That might be a less treacherous assignment than this one turned out to be...