The British & Irish Lions produced a powerful and clinical second-half performance to clinch a 22-17 victory against the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday. The result sees them taking an important 1-0 lead in the three-Test series.
The Lions looked to be dead and buried by half-time. The Boks put the visitors under pressure at the scrum and lineout in the early stages, and bossed the kicking and aerial battles. Handré Pollard slotted four penalties to ensure that the hosts moved into a commanding 12-3 lead at the break.
The Lions changed tack in the second stanza, however. They were more physical at the gainline and more accurate at the breakdown, and far more competitive in the air.
The Boks, by comparison, ran out of steam during this period and struggled to win the race to the high ball. The hosts conceded eight penalties over the course of the second half.
The Lions won the second half 19-5. Where they appeared frantic and rattled in the opening 40 minutes, they displayed an ice-cool temperament in dying stages.
Make no mistake, the Lions were deserved winners in a tightly contested series-opener.
Many have challenged the decision to push on with these matches in spite of the Covid-19 situation in South Africa and, more recently, the violent political protests in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Many have called for this tour to be postponed so that fans might attend in their thousands and create an atmosphere befitting an occasion that takes place once every 12 years in this part of the world.
The spectators were sorely missed at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday. One wonders how a local as well as a touring contingent of fans may have shaped the flow of the contest with their partisan chanting or singing.
Indeed, one wonders if the South African supporters may have lifted the spirits of the home team late in the game while they were hammering away at the Lions defence in search of a potentially match-winning try.
The Lions were particularly vocal in the buildup, with Warren Gatland questioning Rassie Erasmus’ role as an on-field waterboy, and the Lions as a group bemoaning the appointment of a local TMO – Marius Jonker – due to travel restrictions.
On Tuesday, the Lions team to play in the first Test was leaked to the media, a full two days before it was scheduled to be announced. Gatland responded by moving the team announcement forward to Wednesday. The disruption was evident when Gatland described the leak as a ‘betrayal’.
That said, the Boks didn’t enjoy the best buildup either.
Captain Siya Kolisi, hooker Bongi Mbonambi and wing Makazole Mapimpi joined the squad in Cape Town five days before the Test after completing a 10-day period of isolation. Many in South African rugby circles feared that the trio – as well as other key players affected by Covid-19, such as Pollard and tighthead Frans Malherbe – may not be ready for a battle of this magnitude.
Gatland took a few gambles of his own. After completing a miraculous recovery from a shoulder injury, Alun Wyn Jones was backed to play 20 minutes against the Stormers on 17 July. On the basis of that performance, Gatland selected Jones to lead the side against the Boks.
Gatland’s selections at scrumhalf, No 8, outside centre and fullback also spoke to a brave, high-tempo approach. More than a few eyebrows were raised when he picked Wyn Jones, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong to start in the front-row, given the Boks’ traditional strength at the scrums.
Several hours before kickoff, the Lions suffered a further setback when the loosehead prop withdrew due to a shoulder problem, and Rory Sutherland was promoted to the starting lineup. Sutherland – and the Lions scrum as a whole – battled to live with the Bok scrum in the early stages.
The Boks made wholesale changes to their front row at half-time, and they lost momentum at the set pieces as a result. Their discipline let them down in the third quarter, and while they scored a try – and crossed the line on two more occasions, only for those scores to be disallowed by the TMO – they rarely put the Lions defence under pressure.
Dan Biggar kicked a penalty in the 63rd minute to give the visitors the lead for the first time in the match. A minute later, Pollard missed a penalty attempt that may have given the Boks some hope of victory.
The Lions continued to push the Boks in the latter stages. Their leaders stood tall during this period, with Jones in particular showing his value. Owen Farrell came off the bench to nail a penalty in the 78th minute that all but clinched the result.
The Lions defended for their lives at the death, and eventually won a turnover. As referee Nic Berry blew the final whistle, the cheers of the Lions players echoed around the empty stadium.
The Lions are one win away from a famous series win in South Africa. All the pressure is on the Boks to produce a response.