“You can now come out from behind the sofa, breathe again and pour yourself a big drink” – that was how the Sky Sports anchor man Alex Payne greeted the thrilling 22-17 victory in Cape Town as the celebrations began.
Let’s be fair, there was plenty to celebrate after Alun Wyn Jones’ side hauled themselves back from a 12-3 interval deficit to win the second 40 minutes 19-5 to take a massive step forward in trying to win the series against the world champion Springboks.
To his credit, it took Limerickman Conor McNamara on commentary more than 70 minutes before he brought out the old “game of two halves” cliché, but that is exactly what it was. All at sea in cape Town for 40 minutes, all over the men in green in the second.
As good as the second half was, there were some squeaky-bum moments and the South African TMO, Marius Jonker, turned into a saint, rather than potential sinner. Don’t you just love Warren Gatland! Not only does he get under the skin of the opposing team, but he also puts the match officials on their mettle.
His tried and trusted mind games were aimed at the late call-up of Jonker, but his midweek anger must have turned to second half delighted as he twice correctly ruled out on-field tries that would surely have brought about a different result.
As Will Greenwood bellowed after Willie le Roux was adjudged to be offside chasing a kick-ahead: “Marius Jonker, all is forgiven!” At that stage the other supporting voice, Nigel Owens, wasn’t sure which way to go – “that’s a very tight call.” Greenwood kept on offering Owens the chance to add his knowledge and experience to the commentary, but only after quoting the law book verbatim. “You should become a referee,” quipped Owens, who certainly adds a different insight to the analysis.
He had a bite back at a couple of the decisions by Nic Berry, who was pretty damn good, and reminded everyone as the countdown reach nine minutes that the pressure isn’t only on the players, but also on the officials.
But all’s well that ends well. The Sky build-up began first thing in the morning with a re-run of that brutal second Test in 2009, when five Lions players ended up in hospital and two had to undergo surgery, and then came the assault on the senses.
Stuart Hogg brought a tear to the eye with his sit-down with Sara Elgan as he explained how it felt to finally get into the Test team on his third tour: “All I wanted to do when I was growing up was play for Hawick – then for Scotland and then for the Lions. When the team was announced Gats came to the back three last. When I heard my name I was in tears. There was a kid who had a dream and now I’m living the dream.”
Scott Quinnell stoked things up on location with his typical emotional appeal. He spoke to Will John McBride earlier in the week, and his Dad, Derek, he won in New Zealand in 1971, probably, and he was ready to lead the Lions fans over the top wherever they were in the world.
Then it was time for the gladiators to enter the coliseum. Alun Wyn Jones – how the hell did he make it after dislocating his shoulder a month ago? – led out the Lions for his 10th Test and Jack Conan walked in his shadow on his debut. Both stood as tall as each other as they both completed the full 80 minutes.
Then came the blood and thunder, the guts and character and an aerial battle that ended very much in favour of the Lions. Game, set, but no match as yet. That could come in Cape Town this weekend and at least the coach feels his side can get better.
“It was six out of 10 in the first half and nine out of 10 in the second. That’s probably seven-and-a-half out of 10 over all, but there is still more in us,” he said.