The British & Irish Lions downed world champions South Africa to grab a vitally important win in the first Test as they came from nine points down at half-time to snuff out the Springboks.
They had trailed 12-3 at the interval following a sloppy opening 40 minutes that had allowed Handré Pollard to kick the home side in front at Cape Town Stadium. Yet a stirring second-half fightback, underscored by the goal-kicking of Dan Biggar, the belligerence of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes and the industry of Robbie Henshaw secured a victory and a 1-0 lead in this three-Test series.
The Lions had been forced into a late change to their front row with loosehead prop Wyn Jones not recovering from a minor shoulder injury sustained in training on Thursday. That brought a promotion from the bench for Scotland’s Rory Sutherland with 2013 and 2017 Lions Test starter Mako Vunipola joining the replacements.
It proved to be a baptism of fire for Sutherland as the Lions’ scrum creaked on numerous occasions in a sloppy first half for the tourists. There were far too many cheap turnovers from Warren Gatland’s men as Handré Pollard, in his 50th Test appearance, took full advantage with four penalties to give the world champions a 12-3 interval lead.
The first came on 14 minutes as flanker Tom Curry was caught on the wrong side after tackling Ox Nché and it was Curry again with a late hit on Faf de Klerk as the scrum-half kicked upfield. The Lions got their first foothold in the game after 20 minutes as Dan Biggar kicked his first penalty of the game after Damian de Allende strayed offside but Pollard was soon back to extend the Springbok lead to 9-3 six minutes later, this time Daly the culprit.
Pollard’s fourth penalty of the half came on the half hour as Robbie Henshaw was pinged for not rolling away at a ruck but the Lions were struggling to build a platform through their set-piece as a couple of lineouts were poorly executed and the scrum was being dominated by the South Africans.
The Springboks had signalled their intent from the off with outside centre Lukhanyo Am landing a massive hit on opposite number Elliot Daly in the second minute as the ball was dislodged from the English carrier and it was uphill all the away for the first 40 minutes, although Maro Itoje was imperious over the ball for the Lions and Henshaw gave the tourists a glimpse of hope with an excellent linebreak from midfield into the Springboks’ 22, only for that man Pollard to pull out a textbook tackle to dislodge the ball from the Irish centre’s hands, the home side winning a penalty at the subsequent scrum to end the first half on top with a nine-point lead.
The Lions had trailed 17-3 10 days earlier when a Test-strength South Africa A side dominated the first half but faded badly. They still won, 17-14 but the Lions will have hoped for a repeat from the ring-rusty Springboks.
The tourists started the second half strongly, Curry and Duhan van der Merwe engineering a ruck penalty and captain Alun Wyn Jones ignoring the opportunity of three points by going to the corner. The gamble paid off, Cowan-Dickie accurate with his throw to Lawes and the resulting maul driven over the home tryline, the hooker the man to touch down for the first try of the game, converted by Biggar to make it a four-point game at 12-8.
It was a short-lived gain, and though Willie Le Roux had a try ruled out with the full-back ruled to have been in front of Am whose kick had pushed the ball into open space, de Klerk made no mistake when he collected a loose ball after Makazole Mapimpi’s deft kick from the left wing put Pieter-Steph Du Toit through. He failed to gather but the ball bounced back off his legs, Mapimpi collected and was held up by Hogg but the wing managed to work the ball back to his scrum-half and de Klerk scored. Pollard missed the conversion from wide out and Biggar narrowed the gap to 17-13 on 53 minutes. The Lions fly-half then made it a one-point game three minutes later to set a crucial last quarter.
Jacques Nienaber had launched his Bomb Squad front-rowers Malcolm Marx, Stephen Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe into the game on 41 minutes but it was Gatland’s introduction of hooker Ken Owens and late call-up Vunipola that had the bigger impact, the Lions winning a scrum penalty on the hour mark that Biggar successfully kicked from close to the left touchline to push the Lions in front for the first time at 19-17.
Pollard’s star was fading as he missed his second kick of the half, this time a penalty after replacement openside flanker Hamish Watson tip-tackled Le Roux and was fortunate to escape a yellow card.
There was further anxiety for the Lions when De Allende touched down on 71 minutes only for the TMO to spot a Cheslin Kolbe knock-on in an aerial contest with replacement Lions full-back Liam Williams.
It was the the Lions who crucially scored next, though, replacement Owen Farrell kicking a penalty with two minutes to go and his effort prompting a resilient Lions rearguard as the tourists, spearheaded by the excellent Itoje, not only kept the Boks out but drove them back 20 metres to see out the game a vital victory in this opening Test.
The Lions have landed the first punch but there is a long way to go in this series with the second Test back at Cape Town Stadium in seven days.
W le Roux (D Willemse, 66); C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard (E Jantjies, 70), F de Klerk (H Jantjies, 73); O Nché (S Kitshoff, 41), B Mbonambi (M Marx, 41), T Nyakane (F Malherbe, 41); E Etzebeth, F Mostert (L de Jager, 63); S Kolisi - captain, P-S du Toit, K Smith (R Elstadt, 63).
S Hogg; A Watson, E Daly (O Farrell, 66), R Henshaw, D van der Merwe (L Williams, 70); D Biggar (E Daly 66 - HIA), A Price (C Murray, 62); R Sutherland (M Vunipola, 56), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens, 56), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 66); M Itoje, A W Jones - captain; C Lawes (T Beirne, 74), T Curry (H Watson, 56), J Conan.
N Berry (Australia).