- 14 Jul 21
In what was being billed in advance as an unofficial 'fourth test', the Lions succumbed to a 17-13 mauling by South Africa A, on Wednesday night. Both sides will presumably have learnt a lot – but the Lions are left with more room to improve, despite the sour taste this defeat will have left in their mouths.
Five minutes in and things were already looking ominous for the Lions. South Africa A came out like a snarling beast, hurtling themselves at men in red with an aggression that was both fierce and controlled.
The fear, in advance, had been that the South Africa A side, featuring 18 World Cup winners, might be lacking in match fitness. The counterbalancing concern, from a Lions’ perspective, was that they were undercooked as a team.
To one extent or another, both fears were realised, but – and here's thearea where personal interpretation comes into play – I believe the Lions will be the happier of the two camps, despite losing 17-13 in the end.
The Lions struggled massively in the opening exchanges – but they grew into the game. I got the impression that they had learnt from their mistakes in previous games: for the most part, they eradicated the unforced errors we had seen. More importantly, they seemed to learn from their mistakes in real time. Having watched his side play second fiddle in hte first half, Warren Gatland changed the plan in the second half and it worked, as the Springboks didn’t register a single additional point and Wyn Jones went over for the Lions only try.
South Africa looked to bully and boss the Lions. They registered some brilliant, incisive carrying and an excellent kicking game early on. Their narrow defence sucked the Lions in and De Klerk, allied to Steyn’s boot, kept them going forward, pinning the Lions back in their own half.
But the Lions almost turned it around.
There were huge improvements in the maul and – a big note to strike – their scrum was dominant all night. That might be the vital factor come the first test.
As for South Africa, the suspicion is that there is little room for improvement save for fitness. Then again, that too might be a deciding factor.
Looking at the game in greater detail, the Lions' lineout looked very solid. Itoje was plucking the Lions' own ball like apples from an orchard and managed to steal some 'Bok ball too. The maul has improved immensely since their last hit-out against the Sharks.
At times, South Africa A splintered the Lions' forwards in the middle, but they managed to stem that trend, and got some impressive go-forward in attack. Meanwhile, Gats can rest assured he has world class scrummagers across the front-row crop: they were the dominant force on the night.
This revelation will soothe a few worries, as the Springboks are so well known for their power at set-pieces it’s become a cliché. That said, the strike moves the Lions ran off set-pieces involved little more than Aki crashing it up. That's far too basic to take into the test, so one suspects that Gats has a few tricks up his sleeve. Will they try out a few against the Stormers next week? We'll see!
Adam Beard and Itoje worked well in tandem to demolish the Boks big boys at times, and Itoje’s dark arts were beautiful to observe all around the park. We can forgive him – just about – for getting toasted by Cheslin Kolbe, who had half the field to work with either side of the English second row. Generally, he did well.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
Watch any interview with any member of the touring party. Count up the number of times they say some combination of “improvise, adapt, overcome.” Give me a fiver for every instance they say it and I will be a reasonably wealthy man.
Much of this tour has been about improvising due to covid and other off-field events. Despite suffering from an abdominal niggle himself, Owen Farrell dropped in at 10 tonight for Dan Biggar, who has an ankle strain. Liam Williams came in for Josh Adams, who’s watching his partner giving birth via Zoom.
It had been highlighted that the Lions made numerous mistakes in their games on the tour so far. In their second fixture, they gift-wrapped four tries for the Sharks. Those mistakes were largely absent tonight, save for Owen Farrell’s ill-advised kick, which was charged down and punished by Sbu Nkosi with a try.
The new issue lay in the Lions' execution of the game plan.
They kicked very poorly in the first half. Conor Murray’s box kicking invited the South Africans onto the ball, as a disconnect between the kick and the chase meant the Lions were barely able to compete.
Around the half-hour mark, the Lions looked to exit from a line-out in their own 22. The passing was sluggish and when Elliot Daly put boot to ball, it plopped comfortably into Kolbe's bread basket. The pint sized rugby phenom dazzled the Lions with his footwork and offloaded beautifully to SA captain Lukhanyo Am, who dotted down.
Things were looking grim just then, and after a fruitless attempt to batter the Boks on their own line, the Lions went into the sheds looking toothless.
However the second half told a different story.
Murray improved his game. He kicked for touch more frequently, while his box kicks became am effective weapon for the tourists. He put the South Africans under pressure and even claimed his own up and under early in the second half.
Owen Farrell also performed better with the boot in the second half. His up and under in the 50th minute allowed Chris Harris and the hugely energetic Tom Curry, to smash Morné Steyn. The Boks won a questionable penalty, taking the pressure off, but the intent and execution were almost spot on.
We also saw the Lions playing deeper in the second half. The ball was travelling about fifteen metres behind the gainline from the base of each ruck, just to get it wide. But the measure of success is from where the next ruck is formed, and the Lions found a possible bypass through the almost impenetrable South African defence.
1 Step Forward, or 2 Steps Back?
The Lions will be displeased at how the weakness they showed started the game, but they will be encouraged by how much they can improve for the first test.
My feeling is that the Lions' game is really coming together now. They are starting to look a settled team – and, further reinforcing that view, they didn’t panic when the wolves were at the door. Gats and his backroom staff can be pleased with how the Lions wormed their way out of the Boks’ stranglehold, and managed to turn it into an arm wrestle.
They are perhaps missing a bit of nuance and sophistication in attack, but Gats has been employing some very safe rugby since the group’s first run-out against Japan. When the Lions played ball, they caused some real problems for the men in green and gold. I'd like to see more of it.
Welshman Louis Rees Zammit nearly scored his third try of the tour, after a wonderful exchange between him, Taulupe "Toby" Faletau and Tom Curry. Chris Harris did exceptionally well to remain composed and fling the ball wide to Toby, who made inroads into the opposition's 22. LRZ very nearly profited from another excellent Harris pass before he was adjudged to have played the ball on the ground.
To improve their game, the Lions may need to inject some more incisive and innovative play.
Either way, they will also massively benefit from having played this Springboks side. The 'Boks' defence is a black hole that sucks you in and spits you back out. The best way to survive is to avoid it. When the Lions played wide, they made inroads – but that’s far easier said than done.
If I were Warren Gatland, I would be cautiously pleased. Room for improvement isn’t a good or bad thing. What matters is your reaction to it. The Lions aren’t good enough to beat the 'Boks at the moment. However, if they learn well, then they will be a sharper sword to contend with, once they have their full strength side back to match fitness.
But something is telling me that every European rugby fan’s favourite understated Kiwi (he’s mine anyway) is going to bring the Home Nations up another couple of notches before D-day. The simple errors are gone: it’s now about adding positive elements effectively.
Our Irish Lions
• He may not have had the greatest first half ever, butConor Murray showed his importance to Gatland, playing all of 75 minutes. He has to start in my view. Had he stayed on the pitch, the Lions could have eked out a victory. Gareth Davies looks very jittery compared with the Munster man. He fronted up well in defence and showed his deft kicking game, but the Irish number 9 has more to offer with the ball.
• Bundee Aki showed his reliability as a ball carrier, but also his ability to distribute. He exchanged some nice little passes in a triangle with Murray and Farrell and set a couple of spines vibrating with his tackling.
• Iain Henderson continued his excellent run of form and carried smartly to give the Lions go-forward when they badly needed it. With the return of you know who, and Adam Beard’s excellent cameo, the second row competition is very intriguing.
• Tadhg Beirne made a noticeable impact from the bench and was part of a fantastic maul defence in the 71st minute only seconds after his introduction. Once again, Beirne plagued each breakdown and tackled well in his brief stint in the game.
The final preparations have begun, the final hurdle awaits.
The Verdict: Bizarrely, both coaches may well be pleased. The game was short on entertainment but big on learnings for both teams. Not that it could compare to a full-blooded test match . The hard work starts now for the Lions, who know what they need to do.
But will they do it?