Last week I blogged on the greatness of Lions tours in general, and yesterday provided an eye-opening example of their potential. Going into the last fifteen minutes, the Lions were trailing 26-7 to an apparently invincible, if fortunate South African side. What followed was, or could have been one of the great turnarounds in rugby’s history. As it is, the Lions’ failure to turn their chances into gold before the final whistle means yesterday will almost certainly be forgotten in the long-term, but today I intend to have my say as many will have theirs.
My optimism about the Lions’ prospects began to be dispelled around Saturday lunchtime, a result of watching a video of Pierre Spies – the South African number 8 – throwing around huge waits like they weighed nothing at all, and running the hundred metres in ten seconds. Watching the teams line up, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we weren’t kidding ourselves that the gap between the northern and southern hemispheres’ could be bridged. Next to the phenomenal athleticism of the South African teams (not to mention the probably more impressive names these sons of the land have – Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, even the simple John Smit sounds like a punch in the face to me) it was hard to believe that technique could elevate the rather soft-looking Lions into world-beating territory.
Those initial doubts certainly remained for a while after the kick-off. The opening try had a beautiful simplicity to it, and yet, I have never seen so many big runners coming off the breakdown at such speed. It looked like a walk-over, but one going at 100mph – a humiliation? Not every Springbok played out of their skin, but then they didn’t need to. Bryan Habana is a case in point – he had a frustrating day, and looked riled by the hour-mark, and yet, remained a lurking nightmare.
Lurking potential counts for little, however, if the points are not on your side. Despite some truly great mauling – one for a try, one over twenty metres – the failure of South Africa to dominate the loose, to get the big runners (Spies, Juan Smith et al were almost anonymous) going in space will worry Pieter de Villiers, who will hope that altitude takes its toll on the lungs of the visitors, and enables a redemption of his forwards. The Boks’ advantages relied on their pack, and particularly the security of their set piece. Matfield’s lineout and Smit’s scrum provided Ruan Pienaar with the quality ball to make probing kicks. Francois Steyn also was just a little more than competent, kicking South Africa out of, and the Lions into trouble. As an aside, Morne Steyn will be happy enough with his debut for South Africa, which included a try-saving tackle on Monye, if little eye-catching kicking or running.
Even in a dismal first half, the Lions provided plenty of positives. Gethin Jenkins’ tackle on Habana showed that technique does count for something, and the Roberts-O’Driscoll partnership gave South Africa headache after headache. So inseparable are the pair that even after the game they combined for a joint interview with Sky Sports. In fact, when the Lions had the ball in hand, they were in command. The worries about the breakdown proved ill-founded, or were sufficiently addressed – most turnovers came more from going forward too quickly for the support than going backwards. The gaps in the South African defence were seemingly easy to spot, and the Lions certainly broke through enough times. Offloads in the tackle were also plentiful, and support-running
The fatal flaw in the Lions armour was their scrum, ironically one of their strengths thus far on tour. It started well-enough, providing the base for Heaslip to pick up, switch, and set up Monye for a near-score in the corner. From then on, however, the countless penalties conceded were the beating of the Lions. That is evident enough from the scoreboard. Few teams concede fifteen-points to penalties while scoring none themselves and win, and when they do, they’re exceptional. Indeed, the second-half resurrection of the Lions’ hopes was owed chiefly to the shoring up of the scrum. For the Second Test, Phil Vickery must be dropped. The Lions seemed to be in denial about his abject performance – he was comprehensively outclassed by Tendai Mtawarira – but a player of his stature ought to find a way out of such a mess. If the opposite prop is cheating… cheat back! Here’s hoping McGeechan and the Wasps management can admit a serious selection-mistake.
After ruing so many lost opportunities, it’s hard to know what to say about the Lions. Generally, the team gelled well, and there should be few real changes for next week. Croft proved his worth with two well-taken tries, as did the rest of the back row. Ugo Monye will be remembered for his missed opportunities, although I contest that they were more the result of phenomenal tackling by South Africa. Anyway, his pace and step was good, if not rewarding enough. Mike Phillips deserves a nod for his performance and try, but the biggest question mark will be whether to stick with Stephen Jones as his half-back partner. Jones missed several kicks at goal, which on the face of it would have secured the win. However, he took the ball into contact and spread the ball well. Against Francois Steyn, Habana and JP Pietersen, let alone the forwards at altitude, I retract my preference for a kicking fly-half for the Second Test.
It was common place to say that the Lions’ hopes rested on winning the First Test, for two reasons; that South Africa would improve with match-practice, and the altitude of the Second and Third Tests would affect the Lions more negatively than the home side. Well, the Lions have shown their hand, and if not been found wanting, at least not taken enough from it. A lot depends on South Africa blocking the midfield channels in which our centres caused such havoc – have they a Joe Worsley? On the other hand, the Lions (and South Africa in all probability) know that they should have won. Self-belief and team spirit is crucial in a tour of this kind. To play as a team is the only way to beat the demands of a fitter and more athletic opponent.
The only certainty is that there will be just as much anticipation going into the Second Test, as there was leading up to the First.