The build-up to the first Test of any British and Irish Lions tour is long, and agonising. This, one to South Africa, has been worse than ever, because of Covid-19 and all its complications. It is some achievement to even make it to the First Test in Cape Town.
It should barely be a surprise, then, that the first 40 minutes of the opener were dull. The anticipation is almost impossible to live up to. The game was disappointing, and so was the Lions’ performance.
They went into the break 12-3 down, having leaked penalties and missed two kickable penalties of their own – one very simple one from Dan Biggar, and a longer effort from Elliot Daly. The Lions had been disappointing and the gameplan that was so evident from their selection did not work.
They selected high-tempo players, such as Ali Price, Elliot Daly and Stuart Hogg. They wanted to stretch the Springboks, and test their fitness after their peculiar Covid-affected build-up. What happened instead was that South Africa flew out the blocks, with Lukhanyo Am’s immense tackle on Daly a declaration of intent.
The Lions’ day did not start well, when Wyn Jones, the Welsh prop, withdrew hours before kick-off with a “minor shoulder injury”.
Rory Sutherland, a fourth Scot, came into the XV, with Mako Vunipola promoted to the bench. That felt problematic; when Warren Gatland named his team on Wednesday, Jones was one of the few certain starters. It felt a bad omen – and the first half did little to change that view. It was scrappy and tense.
The Lions returned after the break a side transformed to force their way to victory in an outstanding Test match. Immediately, Ali Price hoisted up a box-kick, Duhan van der Merwe chased, and Tom Curry won a penalty. Rather than kick for goal, the Lions went for the corner. From there, Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed. They were now just two points back.
The Lions were fortunate that all the big second-half calls went their way, even if they were correct. It was inevitable that Marius Jonker, the South Africa TMO, would have a major role to play, and he did indeed.
Faf de Klerk scored, but the Lions had enough in the tank. A knock-on here and there saved them. Hamish Watson was only punished with a penalty for a rugged tackle, then Handre Pollard missed the penalty. The Lions were charmed.
The Lions’ power players – the extraordinary Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, and perhaps most of all Courtney Lawes – came to the fore. Their bench provided plenty, with the replacement front row of Vunipola, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler – not exactly a unit known for its scrummaging – winning a penalty at the scrum, despite the Boks calling on a super-powered replacement trio of their own.
It was only in the 63rd minute that the Lions moved into the lead. Even after Owen Farrell – what a luxury, by the way, to bring on a player of that stature in the final minutes – landed a penalty that took the Lions five in front, the outcome was not certain.
They could not secure the ball from the kick-off and a tense couple of moments followed. But Itoje – who else? – pinched the ball and the Lions were home.
They are one up with two games to go (will the Cape Town pitch survive three Tests?). Who knows what they could do if they could turn up in the first half.
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