The British & Irish Lions are on match point. An historic series win is now tantalisingly close after a stunning second half display that left South Africa rattled and facing a week of inquests after they faded so alarmingly.
It was the oldest cliché in the book, but this was a match of two halves — the difference being that the Springboks’ bad half was much worse than the Lions’ difficult stanza.
Coach Jacques Nienaber faces a difficult week under excruciating pressure. This isn’t a World Cup where there are soft group games to find answers. It’s not the Rugby Championship, where if you fail this week, or this year, there is always next week or year. This is a once-in-a-generation series and the hopelessly undercooked Boks have to somehow get their oven up to temperature next weekend after a tepid 40 minutes under the full moon at Cape Town Stadium last Saturday.
The Boks faded after the interval and the bench had no impact. There is no way they can improve their Covid-affected fitness by huge margins in a week, so their gains will have to be made tactically and mentally. And they have a lot to overcome, especially dwelling for too long on massive calls that went against them.
To the Boks’ credit they have avoided complaining about some big decisions that cost them— notably Hamish Watson’s spear tackle on Willie le Roux that only earned a penalty. If that’s an acceptable standard in the series, a dangerous precedent has been set. Had he received a minimum yellow card, it might have shifted the momentum back the Boks’ way at a crucial period.
Le Roux also scored a try, which was overruled by the under-pressure television match official (TMO) Marius Jonker. It was also contentious because Jonker needed to find compelling evidence to overrule Nic Berry’s on-field call of try. Jonker appeared to admit he could not conclusively tell if Le Roux was in front of kicker Makazole Mapimpi.
“We believe No 15 (Le Roux) was ahead of the kicker,” was hardly definitive from Jonker. “Believing” something does not sound conclusive. And who he meant by “we” is also a mystery? Was someone else assisting the TMO? But the try was overturned and ultimately the match was lost. Such small margins can change the entire series too.
Jonker’s appointment was the subject of a lot of questions from the Lions camp before kick-off because he is South African. Robin McBryde questioned Jonker’s neutrality, and therefore the inference was that he wouldn’t give the tourists a fair shake. Well, that theory was blown on two massive incidents.
If the Boks were whingers they might question whether he went too far the other way to prove his neutrality.
Away from the controversy though, the Springboks will have some reflection to do because they gave up a healthy halftime lead and squandered a chance to take charge of the series.
They were ferocious in contact in the first half, winning the gain line and the aerial battle. The scrum, with so-called “second choice” props in Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane starting, edged the Lions pack. Penalties piled up and Handre Pollard landed four. It was really comfortable going for 40 minutes.
But Nienaber removed Nche and Nyakane, as well as hooker Bongi Mbonambi (who is first choice hooker) in a predetermined plan at the break.
The expectation was that new props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe would give the Boks the edge on the restart. But the opposite happened. For whatever reason that pair and hooker Malcolm Marx were flat by their usual standards and the Lions quickly gained the upper hand and therefore momentum.
The Lions won a scrum penalty in the second minute of the second half and from the ensuing lineout drive they scored their only try of the match through Luke Cowan-Dickie. The comfortable Bok cushion was down to two points and almost an entire half to play.
It was the worst time to concede and the best time for the Lions to score. Suddenly the tourists weren’t chasing the match frantically. They could chip away at the Boks without the added anxiety of scoreboard pressure.
That swelled the Lions’ confidence and after a first half of being under pressure, they started winning every skirmish. The aerial battle flipped around with Bok wing Cheslin Kolbe and diminutive No 8 Kwagga Smith struggling under the bombardment. Duane Vermeulen’s meaty absence was deeply felt.
The territory and the pressure built as the Boks gave away seven consecutive second half penalties – a mixture of offsides and breakdown infringements. Their momentum was not only halted, it was driven back – literally and figuratively.
Added to their lack of game time and training sessions due to Covid protocols South Africa ran out of steam and the final denouement was that the fabled bench was ineffective.
Flank Rynhardt Elstadt was anonymous, and lock Lood de Jager looked exactly like a man who last played a competitive match in March when he came on. He simply couldn’t make an impact on the game.
The Jantjies’, Elton and Herschel, made no positive impact and it was only fullback replacement Damian Willemse that added value off the bench.
Nienaber is a realist and an optimist though. He and Rassie Erasmus will channel energy into finding solutions. They cannot, and won’t dwell on decisions that went against them.
In a strange way, the Boks might benefit from next week’s second Test staying at sea level more than the Lions. They are clearly a few weeks off reaching their physical peak, so avoiding the extra physiological demands of Johannesburg’s high altitude could help the home team more than the tourists.
The downside though, is that the Springboks have not won a Test in Cape Town since 2013. They now must win two in two weeks against a strong team that will also be better.
No one said winning a Lions series would be easy, even if you are the world champions.