IT COULD have been one of the greatest Lions victories of all time, in fact even a draw would have offered something tangible to play for in Johannesburg next Saturday. To lose that opportunity and the series as a whole to a last ditch penalty converted from five metres inside the opposition half makes the second Lions test defeat even more harrowing.
The concession of that opportunity from a reckless mid air collision by Ronan O’Gara will haunt him for the rest of his career.
It really was an incredible test match. Forced to finish the game with a combination of O’Gara, Tommy Bowe at inside and Steven Jones at outside centre for the final ten minutes after both Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll had become the latest to depart the arena in a match of savage brutality, the Lions fought valiantly to keep this series alive. The attrition level was frightening.
Had they secured the draw, one wonders if the Lions would have enough able bodies left to contest a decider in Ellis Park. Right now that just doesn’t seem to matter.
As it happens, South Africa also have issues to face not least the citing of Schalk Burger and Bakkies Botha. For courage, bravery, commitment and enterprise the Lions deserved that the series should extend to the final game of the tour.
Alas, to the great disappointment of everyone within their squad, and to the remarkable army of Lions supporters who brought so much to the occasion in Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, it is not to be.
There are so many talking points that it’s difficult to know where to start but, as the tune goes, we will start at the very beginning. That such an incident-filled game should commence with what should have been a sending off underlined the dramatics that were about to unfold. When assistant referee Bryce Lawrence advised Christophe Berdos that Burger should receive ‘at least a yellow card’ – what a cop out – for an attempted eye gouge on Luke Fitzgerald, the controversial tone was set. Burger, who had just led the side on to the field to celebrate his 50th cap, should have seen red. One wonders what Alan Quinlan made of that decision when the big back rower was clearly seen to have interfered with the eyes of Fitzgerald. There and then this contest should have taken the dramatic turn. The stupidity is that had it happened at some point later in the game he would have gone.
It was ironic that these two should have been the protagonists given that both were playing their first game of the series after their fathers, Schalk Snr and Des, had locked horns when the Lions played against the combined might of the southern hemisphere’s big three in Cardiff in 1986 to celebrate the IRB centenary.
The most startling thing about this test game was the complete reversal in fortunes for the respective sides in the opening half. In Durban last weekend, the Boks sprinted into a 10-point lead in the opening minutes, a feat replicated by the Lions on this occasion.
The Lions management gambled in selection bolstering the front five with the introduction of Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Simon Shaw all of whom contributed handsomely to their set piece dominance in the opening half.
Who would have dared suggest after the damage inflicted by the Beast, Tendai Mtawarira, in the opening test that the Lions would actually end up being disadvantaged by uncontested scrums. That is exactly what happened. The scrum is the essence of rugby and can energise or destroy a team. Last week it had the latter effect, resulting in humiliation for Phil Vickery. On this occasion, defending a five metre scrum from only the second engagement of the game, the Lions supporters held their collective breath. When the Lions front row propelled the Springboks backwards, resulting in a penalty, the massive red army in the main stand stood in unison and recognised the implications. It was one of those psychological moments that happen in a sporting contest that can drive a team to greatness. The turnaround in the space of seven days was highly significant. From each subsequent scrum, the Lions grew in confidence.
WHEN THEY lost both Jones and Gethin Jenkins in the opening minutes of the second half it had a detrimental effect for Paul O’Connell’s men, because the introduction of uncontested scrums enabled the Springbok back row to get into the game.
The other significant feature was the complete inability of the giant Springbok pack to launch their maul – with which they had planned to do so much damage. The Lions simply killed it at source with Shaw playing a significant role. He had a marvellous match. This coupled with a massive defensive effort from the Lions left South Africa looking rudderless and lacking in ideas.
It was a complete travesty, therefore, that the opening two Springbok tries from JP Peterson and Brian Habana were conceded from a set piece, a line out and scrum respectively, with such relative ease. Defence coach Shaun Edwards will be seething with that as it had a marked influence on the destination of the series.
If the Lions management have cause for regret, their South African counterparts – seated alongside me in the stand – had reason to question their safety.
At one stage after Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn had missed with four of their combined five kicks at goal a large section of the home crowd, primarily Blue Bulls supporters, seated in front of coach Peter de Villiers turned around and demanded the introduction of local hero Morne Steyn. It got quite nasty. De Villiers introduced Steyn minutes later and his kicking game rescued the Springboks. Having won his first cap off the bench in Durban, his composure for that last kick was astounding. You just knew he was going to convert it.
For the Lions to lose an 11-point lead in that second half was shattering but the loss of so many key players throughout the course of the game killed them. They also made too many mistakes and once the Springboks smelled vulnerability, they went for the kill. Their substitutions also brought more to the contest, especially Steyn and centre Jaque Fourie.
O’Gara, in particular, had a very rough seven minutes, shifting a massive hit from Pierre Spies and, for some unknown reason, electing to kick long rather than to touch in the final minute, leading to the concession of the winning penalty.
My heart goes out to Paul O’Connell and to all his players as the least they deserved was a draw. However, the management will ponder how they got the selection for the first test so wrong and contemplate what might have happened if last Saturday’s pack started in Durban.
Unfortunately in a tight series like this there is very little margin for error. Only regrets.
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