- 25 Jul 21
The Lions rode their luck at times in the first test – but they also made their own fair portion of the stuff. South Africa were on top in the first half, before the men in red dominated the second. So where was the winning and losing of the game – and what does this opening in mean the series as a whole?
Next week I’m bringing a stress ball to watch the Lions and the 'Boks in action.
The first test between the Lions and the Springboks certainly lived up to the hype, as the Lions scraped to a 22-17 victory over the Springboks.
For a long time that didn't look likely to happen. South Africa dominated the first half where the Lions ill-discipline – combined perhaps with over-eagerness – gave the ‘Boks some inroads into what turned out to be a tense and thrilling test match.
To say that South Africa will be disappointed tonight is a huge understatement. The narrative flipped in the second half. And it was errors by the Springboks – committed as a result of huge Lions pressure – that allowed Warren Gatland's men to claw their way back from 12-3 down to win 22-17 via the boots of Biggar and Farrell, and a Luke Cowan Dickie try.
It was tense.
Both teams brought near enough their A-game to the joust. And yet the feeling lingers that this one can still go up a few notches in the second and third tests. Today's game had the physicality, the excitement and the intensity we were looking for, but next week’s encounter will likely be even more brutal, with a wounded Springbok squad hungry for revenge.
In contrast, the Lions will be breathing a sigh of relief as they retreat to their hotel after drawing first blood against the world champions. The Springboks will lick their wounds and sharpen their claws ahead of next Saturday’s follow up test. But how did the Lions wrestle back a game that looked close to dead and buried from their perspective at half-time?
Play Your Own Game, Beat Them at Theirs
Gats has been banging on about it all tour. He wanted his team to play their own game and go out and enjoy the occasion.
We saw it at times – like when the Lions' attacking shape manipulated the Boks’ defensive line for Robbie Henshaw’s break in the first half. After some nice phase play with some intricate forward pods in the middle third, the Lions found themselves with a massive overlap.
They spun the ball wide and Biggar did really well to flick the ball on to Henshaw, who broke through and stepped inside beautifully to create a real try-scoring chance. The Athlone man was maybe guilty of holding on too long as he could have put Ali Price under the stick before Willie Le Roux tackled him.
Henshaw could have done better, maybe – but the sight of the Lions creating holes in what is being touted as the best defence in the world will have pleased Gatland.
He can also be pleased with how his forwards fronted up against the South African pack. Many Lions fans had feared the 'Boks would bully the super team. It didn't happen that way.
The Lions' scrum struggled in the early exchanges – but as the game wore on, it became more solid and they even won a few penalties. Rory Sutherland struggled here – whereas Mako Vunipola thrived in the empty stadium under the scrutiny of Frans Malherbe and Nic Berry.
The meaty men made a big statement of intent one minute into the second half as Alun Wyn Jones (aka Lazarus) pointed to the corner after the men in green and gold gave away a penalty. Luke Cowan Dickie scored from the rear of the rolling maul to rip the game from the Boks’ control. Now the Lions had the bit between their teeth.
Mauling the 'Boks over their own try-line will be a big fat feather in the cap of the Lions forwards – but will surely sting South Africa if they look at the replay. Indeed, overall, the maul, where the 'Boks struggled to get going – as accepted by captain Siya Kolisi post-match – was really effective for the Lions defensively as well as in attack.
The Lions brought great physicality into the game, matching Rassie Erasmus' men in that department. Lukhanyo man-smashing Elliot Daly five minutes in was phenomenal to watch and felt like a harbinger of things to come. But it never got better than that. Huge performances from throughout the Lions' pack were vital – but they will have to be backed up again next week, with an angry South Africa team hell-bent on inflicting damage.
Maro Itoje deserves a special mention. He deservedly won Man of the Match, having dragged the Lions back into the game. His crucial turnover in the first half 10 metres out from his own line was phenomenal. He carried hard, tackled hard and got involved in some of the dark arts to send a message to the ‘Boks, laying down a clear marker.
But don’t start singing and shouting just yet. There are two more games to come.
Extenuating Factors and Warning Signs
Here's the rub. Most of the South African team have just recovered from Covid.
It’s an important point that has to be made, as the ‘Boks looked genuinely gassed in the last 20 minutes. Siya Kolisi said post-match that they can’t use it as an excuse, but it certainly can’t have helped. Erasmus hauling off his starting front-row – who were playing well – at half-time is an indication of the fitness levels the ‘Boks are struggling to achieve.
Was this a mistake? We'll never properly know. Either way, they may not be so undercooked next week.
Here's another reservation: the ‘Boks would have been a different beast in front of 55,000 screaming fans. It is rather sad to see an empty stadium when there is such a phenomenal test match taking place. And, for hte record, those god-awful crowd noises would only get someone up off their arses to turn them off.
How did the officials do?
I don’t honestly think that the ‘Boks can feel aggrieved over the refereeing decisions. To begin with, Damian De Allende’s pass to Makazole Mapimpi was forward; and Willie Le Roux was offside. They had another try disallowed as Mapimpi seemed to profit from some frankly awful play by the Lions backline. Kolbe clearly knocked on and so Marius Jonker made the right call: no try.
Those close calls underline that anyone who thinks the Lions have this series in the bag is sorely mistaken.
So let's look at the other side of the ledger.
TThe fact that the back-line never really got going is disconcerting. They got away with it because to pack did the business. But they mightn't have.
What's more, the Lions made some sloppy errors – such as in the lead-up to Faf De Klerk’s try in the second half. Handré Pollard chucked the ball carelessly out the back and put his team under pressure. But the Lions chased too hard and their over-enthusiasm allowed 2019’s World Rugby Player of the Year to steam through and pass to Mapimpi – who punted ahead and collected his kick after Du Toit let the ball agonisingly through his legs. The winger duly offloaded to the number 9, who scored.
The ‘Boks looked like they were always potentially capable of turning Lions’ mistakes into South African points. The two disallowed tries are evidence of this. The truth is that the margin between victory and defeat is often slimmer than the scoreline suggests.
And now that Pollard has a game under his belt, and more confidence in his legs, the 'Boks will likely create more of their own chances next time out; and they may punish the Lions' mistakes even more cruelly..
Our Irish Lions
- Jack Conan can be immensely proud of his contribution to the victory. He carried with real intelligence twisting his body and twinkling his toes to find soft shoulders squeeze metres out of inches and avoid getting smashed. The Wicklow man was a real point of security for the Lions and has certainly done enough to reclaim his spot at the back of the scrum. But we know what Gats is like when it comes to selection.
- Tadhg Furlong is a bull. The man dubbed the Jukebox stood up to double and triple tackles and still managed to move forward. He can’t be blamed for the scrum difficulties the Lions had in the first half, but will perhaps also want to perform better in that department if he is chosen for next week’s clash, which – in my estimation – he should be.
- Robbie Henshaw fulfilled his role but wasn’t outstanding. He will be disappointed with his dropped ball in the ‘Boks 22, but carried for fair metre-age and made his tackles. The Leinster man has more to offer. It’s also worth noting that Elliot Daly was poor today, and this wouldn’t have helped Henshaw. Perhaps with Aki at 12 and Henshaw at 13, the former Buccaneers player can show what he’s really capable of.
- Conor Murray played well when he came on as the Lions looked to slow the game down and run down the clock when they were 19-17 ahead. He came on and offered his experience and composure along with some well placed box kicks to ping the South African’s back. However, it would be hard to argue with Ali Price’s quality – and you wouldn’t begrudge him retaining his starting spot.
- Tadhg Beirne had very little time to make any kind of impression in his ten minute cameo. He claimed a line-out immediately after he came on and looked hungry for a turnover at each ruck, hanging back from tackles and offering his hands into each dog pile. Courtney Lawes however should reprise his role in the side next week as he was massive tonight for the Lions – apart from one occasion where he got in the way.
Next week is going to be titanic.
The ‘Boks will be chomping at the bit and eager to prove the doubters wrong. They looked undercooked today, and the Lions benefited from it. However, next week will see an improvement.
It was unfortunate for the ‘Boks that this was the first real chance for many of them to get match minutes into their legs, and to dust off the cobwebs in their shoulder sockets. Rassie and Nienaber will charge their team up even bigger for next week, so we can expect a ‘Boks team full of emotion and aggression, equipped with a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove.
But test one is done and dusted in the CapeTown turf. The Lions put in a massive shift and the signs are positive going into the second test next week. Will they back it up, or will the ‘Boks rally back to break British and Irish hearts?
Either way, it’s 1-0 Lions. Your move South Africa.