The British & Irish Lions claimed a famous 22-17 victory over South Africa in the first Test of the two team’s three-match series in Cape Town.
Warren Gatland’s side had a poor first half and went to the interval 12-3 down with Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard kicking four penalties to one from Dan Biggar.
But in the second Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed the whitewash and while South Africa responded through Faf de Klerk, it was the Lions who came out on top narrowly.
The boot of Biggar and a late Owen Farrell penalty proved crucial.
Fans or no fans, the first Test of a Lions series is always a huge occasion. Sadly, the bottom line is the surface at Cape Town Stadium was not good enough to host a game of such magnitude. It simply wasn’t acceptable.
Even in the first half, the grass was cutting up badly. Lions full-back Stuart Hogg slipped badly in the first half because he lost his footing beneath him and the same happened to Duhan van der Merwe in the opening 40.
In the second period things got worse as the turf gave away badly as the sides scrummaged just before the hour mark. Van der Merwe also slipped again when he looked certain to score a try even though a knock-on was given.
There are two more Tests to come in Cape Town so the ground staff there have serious work to do.
The build-up to this game had been focused on the fury of Lions head coach Gatland that first Test TMO Marius Jonker was a South African. Only Jonker himself will know if his decisions were influenced by Gatland’s pre-match comments, but what is fact is he failed to award his own country a try. Willie le Roux thought he had crossed for South Africa in the second half when he raced on to a kick ahead by Lukhanyo Am, but Jonker decided he was in front of his team-mate.
It was a tight call, but ultimately a crucial one as the Lions came out on top. Jonker also helped out the Lions late on when he rightly ruled out a South African try for a knock on by Cheslin Kolbe when he competed for a high ball with Liam Williams.
South Africa claimed 2019 World Cup glory by using their mammoth forward pack, six-two split on the bench, and huge physicality to impressive effect. The first Test of this Lions series showed the Springboks aren’t going to change their style now or in the near future. They hammered into every contact area, looked to control their game through the kicking of Faf de Klerk, and replaced their entire front row at half-time.
What will please Gatland no end is the way the Lions improved as the game wore on and the pack gradually grew on top after playing into the South African’s hands in the opening 40. It bodes well for the second and third Tests because even though the Lions claimed a famous win, they can still play better than this.
The Lions conceded seven first-half penalties and were lucky to only be 12-3 behind at the break. Flanker Tom Curry was an early guilty party as he was pinged at the breakdown and also took out his Sale Sharks team-mate De Klerk with a late tackle off the ball. Both led to Pollard kicking penalties. Curry was not the only guilty party though with several Lions getting on the wrong side of Nic Berry.
However, it was South Africa who caught the penalty bug in the second half. Whenever the Lions retained possession for several phases, the Springboks couldn’t help but get on the wrong side of Berry’s whistle and ultimately that allowed Biggar to kick the Lions home.
Leinster and Ireland forward Conan was a shock name when the Lions tour party was announced in May and if truth be told, no-one would have said ahead of the tour that he’d be a first Test starter.
For the No 8 to be selected ahead of Taulupe Faletau and Sam Simmonds was a big call and even Conan would have perhaps been surprised by his elevation. That said, the 28-year-old had the most Lions carries on tour going into the first Test and had a strong afternoon against the Springboks.
There was one impressive first-half carry and he did the basics very well. It was a mark of how quietly good Conan was that his opposite number Kwagga Smith also went well, particularly in the first half. In the second he helped by Lions come from behind as he played the full 80 minutes in a game he will remember for a long time.