Racing buffs will know the sorry tale of Devon Loch. He was the ill-fated steeplechaser leading the 1956 Grand National with the finishing line in sight only to succumb to a mysterious and literal collapse onto the Aintree turf. No explanation for it, just one of those unlikely misfortunes that can happen in sport, and an event that sprung to mind when thinking about the British & Irish Lions on Saturday night.
The Lions may not have been exactly cantering towards a series win over South Africa as they reached half-time in last Saturday’s second Test but it looked as if they had everything under control and victory was in reach.
They had experienced the expected backlash as the Springboks purged themselves of their weak second-half surrender in the opening match during a fiery yet artless first half full of brimming anger and physicality and emerged with a 9-6 lead at the break.
You can imagine Warren Gatland’s message to his players during the interval was something along the lines of keep calm and carry on doing what you’ve been doing, it’s not pretty but it’s doing the job.
The problem with the second half, however, was that the Lions’ far from attractive rugby did not even get the job done. Some would say it was plug-ugly, a succession of high balls kicked into the Cape Town sky that had done the job seven days earlier but were this time not equal to a rejuvenated South African team who were also beginning to dominate both the set-piece and breakdown. The tourists went into meltdown, racking up penalties without laying a glove on the opposition in terms of attacking threat.
Two second-half tries for the Springboks in the third quarter from the excellent wing Makazole Mapimpi and the even better centre Lukhanyo Am set the tone and their pack did the rest to take the series into a decisive final Test back at Cape Town Stadium this Saturday.
“We were quite happy at half-time,” Lions head coach Gatland lamented after the 27-9 loss, “but in the second half, we just didn’t get into it really, got no momentum, no real opportunity to play, nothing at all from any of our kick returns, whether it was us or them.
“That was disappointing and we’ve probably given away some penalties. In fairness, they scrummaged pretty well in the second half, drove a lot, and got some reward from that.
“Like I said, we were happy with the way the first half had gone. We felt going in at half-time that we had carried well, got some forward momentum, we just didn’t achieve that at all in the second half.”
Gatland had some gripes about the Springboks slowing the tempo of the game and his players’ inability to force a change in that respect and, tellingly, added: “There were a couple of opportunities where we probably should have put the ball through the hands and looked to exploit that and we’d shortened them up on a few occasions… We’ve just got to be aware of that and try and take advantage of those situations.”
As absorbing as this series has been, the Springboks and the Lions have hardly dished up appetising fare. We know the Boks will not deviate from their Plan A, confirmation of which came from their World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi post-match when he said: “It’s game on. We are going to go again, nothing is different. We are just going to try and do what we did today even harder.”
That will be a sobering prospect for the Lions as they try and pick up the pieces this week with the added knowledge that the Springboks on Sunday welcomed back fit-again No.8 Duane Vermuelen to their camp in Cape Town following an ankle operation. A fit Vermuelen has the potential to make the tourists’ lives even more uncomfortable.
Gatland needs to use all his experience this week to turn the momentum back in his favour and that surely starts with getting the ball into creative hands and running more to the edges. South Africa will still kick, kick, and kick again so safer hands than Stuart Hogg provided at full-back are needed and Liam Williams provides those as well as a bit more attacking threat on current form. While van der Merwe’s defensive frailties and indiscipline suggest a recall for Josh Adams on the wing.
Gatland still has not got his midfield right and moving Robbie Henshaw from inside to outside centre could pave way for Bundee Aki to start while the addition of more flair on the bench in the form of Finn Russell could provide much-needed X-factor.
As tour captain Alun Wyn Jones suggested, changes to selection are about to come in the next couple of days. Something has to change if the Lions are to get this Test series back on track and rally in the final Test and Gatland said: “We have got lots of options in terms of bringing some guys in to give us energy or momentum as well.
“The players are very disappointed but next Saturday is a cup final and that is how we have to look at it and prepare. There’s a few things we’ve got to tidy up in terms of our game but it’s one-all and South Africa put a huge amount of emotion into that, so we have got that chance next week to hopefully tidy the series up.”
SOUTH AFRICA: W le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi (D Willemse, 67); H Pollard, F de Klerk (H Jantjies, 62); S Kitshoff (T Nyakane, 59), B Mbonambi (M Marx, 56), F Malherbe (V Koch, 56); E Etzebeth, F Mostert; Siya Kolisi cpt (M van Staden, 72), PS du Toit (K Smith, 21), J Wiese (L de Jager, 55).
Yellow card: Kolbe 24-34 mins
B&I LIONS: S Hogg; A Watson, C Harris (E Daly, 63), R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; D Biggar (O Farrell, 57), C Murray (A Price, 57); M Vunipola (R Sutherland, 56), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens, 56), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 56); M Itoje, A W Jones cpt; C Lawes (T Beirne, 70), T Curry, J Conan (T Faletau, 59).
Yellow cards: v der Merwe 22-32 mins
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand).