South Africa 17
British & Irish Lions 22
A PULSATING encounter in Cape Town ended with the Lions taking a 1-0 lead in this summer’s three Test series against the world champion Springboks with a win which was, in fact, much closer than the five points separating the two teams at the final whistle suggests.
The hosts will be kicking themselves at surrendering a 12-3 half-time lead, and frustrated that the they twice got over the line during the second half only for those tries to be chalked off by the Television Match Official. They will have to think long and hard this week about how they reduce the crippling penalty count which cost them so dearly in the second half.
It really could have gone either way, although the Lions probably deserved it more for the way they sharpened up their set-piece, breakdown and kicking game after the break to wrestle their way into the lead. But this series is wide open, and we know there will be a big reaction from the host nation when round two comes along next Saturday.
The Lions looked to lay down an early marker when Alun Wyn Jones won clean line-out ball at the tail and Dan Biggar hoisted a towering kick which was chased down by Duhan van Der Merwe, but the big winger knocked the ball on as he pressurised opposite number Cheslin Kolbe and play was called back for an offside by Tom Curry.
South Africa wasted little time in demonstrating that they were not just in this game to make up the numbers with Lukhanyo Am issuing a ferocious declaration of intent when he flattened Elliot Daly in the middle of the park.
With the Lions line-out under pressure, and South Africa competing hard at the breakdown, the world champions slowly but surely took control of the match, and it took some excellent work by the excellent Maro Itoje to win two turnovers as the hosts looked to press home their dominance.
Itoje was declared man-of-the-match at the end. A deserved accolade but he could only have been a short nose ahead of the equally exceptional Courtney Lawes.
Eventually, in the 14th minute, Hendre Pollard broke the deadlock with a penalty after Curry was called for not rolling away from the tackle, and three minutes later, the Springbok stand-off doubled his account when Curry was penalised again, this time for a late tackle on Faf de Klerk.
It was the third penalty conceded by the English flanker inside the first 16 minutes, which is not good enough in a match we all knew was going to be balanced on a knife edge.
Biggar managed to narrow the gap three minutes later when Damian de Allende was penalised for offside – but rather than settle Lions’ nerves, this invigorated their opponents, and Pollard fired home two more penalties in quick succession after Lions ruck infringements.
The Lions finished the half strongly and Biggar had an opportunity to pull three points back after Tadhg Furlong won a scrum penalty, but the Welsh playmaker pulled his shot at goal to the left of the posts.
Not long later, Daly stepped up to have a shot at goal following a high tackle by Trevor Nyakane on Alun Wyn Jones, but his 55-metre effort fell just short.
Lions had a golden opportunity to go in at the break on a real high when good hands from Stuart Hogg and Biggar sent Robbie Henshaw clear. With support runners in his left and right slipstreams, the Irishman had the Springboks in trouble for the first time in the match, but Willie Le Roux got back to knock the ball out of the big centre’s hands and the chance was gone.
Rory Sutherland – a late call-up to the Lions front-row due to a Wyn Jones shoulder injury – was penalised at the subsequent scrum meaning South Africa remained nine points clear as they disappeared down the tunnel for a well-earned breather.
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South Africa replaced their entire front-row at the start of the second half, but the new boys didn’t really have a chance to make an impact before the tourists had punched their way right back into the match, forcing two penalties to get into the strike zone then opting to go for the corner instead of taking the three points which were on offer. That boldness paid off when the line-out was driven over the try-line and Luke Cowan-Dickie got the downward pressure.
It looked like the Springboks had struck right back when Le Roux was first to Am’s kick ahead as it bounced over the Lions try-line, but the TMO ruled that the full-back had been in front of the kicker.
Warren Gatland was furious during the week when he discovered that Marius Jonker – a South African – was going to be the TMO during this series, but he can’t have had any complaints about that decision.
If South Africa were frustrated at missing out on that score, they didn’t let it knock them off their stride, and they got the try they were after just a few minutes later when Pieter-Steph du Toit and Makazole Mapimpi combined to set up de Klerk for the finishing touch.
But Pollard missed the conversion and, with Lions pressure forcing South Africa into a series of lapses in discipline, the momentum of this match was now with the tourists. Biggar capitalised by kicking two more penalties to make a two-point game as we approached the hour mark.
Van der Merwe reminded us of the threat he poses when he raced clear following another well-contested high kick from Biggar, but play was pulled back for a Henshaw knock-on.
Lions took the lead for the first time in the match when Biggar fired home a touchline penalty on 63 minutes.
Hamish Watson, on as a replacement for Currie, rode his luck when he appeared to tip Le Roux past 180 degrees in a tackle, and the added bonus for the Lions was Pollard uncharacteristically missing the penalty.
Lions dodged another bullet when Hogg and Henshaw got themselves into a mess shovelling poor passes in the middle of the park and de Allende dived on the ball in the Lions in-goal area – only for another try to be chalked off, this time for a knock-on earlier in the passage of play by Kolbe.
With less than four minutes to go, Owen Farrell kicked another penalty for the Lions which gave the tourists a four point cushion, and they saw out the match with some robust defence.
South Africa: W le Roux (D Willemse 67); C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard (E Jantjies 71), F de Klerk (H Jantjies 75); O Nché (S Kitshoff 41), B Mbonambi (M Marx 41), T Nyakane (F Malherbe 41), E Etzebeth, F Mostert (L de Jager 64), S Kolisi, P du Toit, K Smith (R Elstadt 64).
Lions: S Hogg; A Watson, E Daly (O Farrell 65), R Henshaw, D van der Merwe (L Williams 70); D Biggar (E Daly 67), A Price (C Murray 64); R Sutherland (M Vunipola 57), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens 57), T Furlong (K Sinckler 67), M Itoje, A Jones, C Lawes (T Beirne 75), T Curry (H Watson 57), J Conan.
South Africa: Try: de Klerk; Pens: Pollard 4.
Lions: Try: Cowan-Dickie; Con: Biggar; Pen: Biggar 4, Farrell.
Scoring sequence (South Africa first): 3-0; 6-0; 6-3; 9-3; 12-3 (h-t) 12-8; 12-10; 17-10; 17-13; 17-19; 17-22;