Donal Lenihan on tour with the Lions: Which camp has more scope for improvement before second Test?

You had to wonder what the atmosphere would have been like with 55,000 fans, roaring on their respective sides
Donal Lenihan on tour with the Lions: Which camp has more scope for improvement before second Test?

Courtney Lawes, who was outstanding throughout for the British & Irish Lions, hands off South Africa’s Siya Kolisi during the 1st Test at Cape Town Stadium. Picture: David Rogers

With the Lions clinging desperately to a five point lead in the dying minutes of this captivating opening series clash, you had to wonder what the atmosphere would have been like with 55,000 fans, roaring on their respective sides.

While it may not have been aesthetically pleasing, the sheer intensity of the battle, the physicality of the hits and the relentless endeavour shown by both sides, with some punishing defensive shifts thrown in for good measure, marked it out as a true test in every sense of the word.

Round two will be even more tempestuous.

This win sets the Lions up perfectly as, at the very least, it keeps them in the fight for the series right up to the final whistle in the third test. Not that they’ll be thinking that way as Warren Gatland will be doing everything within his amazing coaching prowess to finish the job back here in the magnificent Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.

It also piles the pressure on Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus as the second Test becomes do or die for the hosts. With no midweek game or travel to negotiate for the tourists, every minute can be dedicated towards preparations to close out the series before the Springboks find their second wind, having spent the last 20 months outside the international test window.

The Lions will be aware that a number of marginal decisions went their way, not least when Hamish Watson was penalised for a sloppy tackle on South African full-back Willie le Roux.

Stuart Hogg with Anthony Watson of the British & Irish Lions following the game.
Stuart Hogg with Anthony Watson of the British & Irish Lions following the game.

Given that he lifted both legs beyond the horizontal, Watson could so easily have been shown a yellow card at a time when South Africa were making serious inroads in attack. They were not happy with that call.

In truth, this game could have gone either way with two Springbok tries correctly disallowed, having initially been awarded by Australian referee Nic Berry. If Gatland had understandable issues with former South African referee Marius Jonker being appointed TMO, he need not have worried. Jonker was professionalism personified.

That said, the local official has been placed in a very awkward position. So many of these calls are marginal at best and it’s ridiculous that World Rugby allowed this situation develop. Be it on their heads if the series is decided by a controversial TMO call, with the South African still in situ.

As things stand, he is already on the receiving end of unwarranted abuse from Springbok fans and certain sections of the media down here. For transparency, at the very least, that position must be filled by a neutral appointment.

The big question now is which camp has more scope for improvement for next Saturday’s rematch. From my vantage point, I suspect both will have gained massively from this absorbing game and will have learned so much about themselves.

Even over the course of the 80 minutes, the Lions made massive gains between their first and second half performances. On the back foot for most of the opening half, they were forced to kick a bit more than they probably intended to and kicked badly as a result.

Both Stuart Hogg and Dan Bigger kicked far too deep, offering no chance for the chasers to exert any decent pressure. Le Roux and Handre Pollard roamed freely in the backfield, swept up everything that came their way and carried the fight straight back to the Lions.

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa following the game. Picture: Steve Haag
Eben Etzebeth of South Africa following the game. Picture: Steve Haag

In addition, the Lions indiscipline was killing any chance for them to generate momentum with Tom Curry the biggest culprit, conceding three penalties alone in the opening quarter and Elliot Daly rowing in with two more. The message at the interval was clear. No more cheap penalties. Hold on to the ball and ask more questions of the Springboks defensively, especially in the wide channels.

If South Africa bossed the opening half, the visitors seized the initiative from the restart, pouncing on a basic mistake from Springbok No 8 Kwagga Smith when he failed to release in the tackle, after allowing the ball to bounce.

On such basic errors, test games of this ferocity can swing one way or the other. Kicking to the corner off that penalty, Lions hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie scored from a searing line out maul that hit at the very core of the Springbok mindset. Do unto them what they take so much pride inflicting onto others.

Struggling badly at scrum time and failing in their quest to deliver any semblance of quick ball for the majority of the opening half, the Lions pack began to assert themselves, driven on by the relentless Courtney Lawes. He was outstanding throughout, a constant source of quality line out possession, a lumbering force in the loose, a powerhouse in the tackle.

When the pressure was at it greatest, the insatiable work rate and ability of Maro Itoje to make an absolute nuisance of himself was also crucial. Two phenomenal turnovers generated by him in the first half, one within metres of the Lions goalline, helped keep the margin between the sides to a manageable nine points at the break.

Without those key interventions from Itoje that may well have stretched to 16. Had the Springboks managed to put that amount of daylight between the sides, the Lions would have found it very difficult to work their way back into the contest. Watching Itoje’s titanic battle with the outstanding Eben Etzebeth, in the flesh, was worth the long haul to Cape Town alone.

Perhaps the most impactful change implemented by the Lions after the break was the improvement in the accuracy of their kicking game which finally allowed them to put pressure on the Springbok back three and contest successfully in the air. That enabled them to control the key territorial battle and keep South Africa pinned deep in their own half.

In the circumstances, a one-point lead entering the final quarter was never likely to be enough for the Springboks given that they were always likely to run out of steam due to their lack of recent game time at this level and the short recovery period for some of their players having recently contracted Covid.

That said, the fact they finished the contest, camped in the Lions 22, chasing the try that would, at the very least, have drawn the game with a conversion to win it. Another fitting intervention by Itoje, when ripping the ball free to generate yet another turnover, put an abrupt end to that prospect and the Lions secured that all-important opening buffer.

British & Irish Lions' Duhan van der Merwe makes a break for the line as he comes up against Willie Le Roux of South Africa. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
British & Irish Lions' Duhan van der Merwe makes a break for the line as he comes up against Willie Le Roux of South Africa. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

While they will be desperately disappointed to have lost, you suspect South Africa will have gleaned enough from this outing and benefitted hugely from experiencing a refresher course, after an absence of 20 months, of what top-class international rugby is all about.

The margin between victory and defeat was so tight and this key opening test could have swung either way. What did transpire was that all the question marks and doubts surrounding the preparedness of the Springboks in the lead-in to the game came home to roost.

From a Lions perspective, there is also scope for improvement. While Gatland is entitled to bask in the glory of this win, he is around long enough to know that not all of his tight selection calls came good.

At times, Daly looked like the player who hadn’t started an international in the centre in five years. I’d be surprised if Gatland doesn’t review his midfield combination in deciding who should start alongside Robbie Henshaw who enjoyed a productive afternoon.

Up front Jack Conan fully justified his start ahead of Taulupe Faletau with a very assured performance while Mako Vunipola, who wasn’t in the matchday squad until injury ruled Wyn Jones out of the equation, made a big impact off the bench.

In the opposite camp, you can take it as read that South Africa will rise from the ashes of this defeat like men possessed and bring the fight to a different level next time out.

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