South Africa ‘A’ 17
A SET-BACK but not a disaster for the Lions. They were up against a very strong South Africa ‘A’ side, and the tourists – who were disrupted by a couple of late call-offs – needed a real battle like this to ensure they don’t go into their Test series against the world champion Springboks undercooked. It would have been nice to go through the build-up schedule unbeaten, but the true measure of success on this tour will be how the final three matches of the trip pan out.
Plenty of food for thought, though. The Lions were shown that they need to work on being quicker to the tackle and more aggressive when they get there. They need to be sharper and smarter with their kicking game. They need to start better. And they need to make sure that they don’t offer up as many soft opportunities which might not be punished in provincial matches but will be by the Springboks.
Next up for the Lions is the Bulls on Saturday, and head coach Warren Gatland confirmed after the match that Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, who has been out of the picture since being a late withdrawal from the Sharks game last Saturday, will feature in that match.
“He was on the pitch today, running,” said Gatland. “He’s been doing some fitness work so, yeah, he will definitely get a hit-out on Saturday.”
“That was definitely what we needed,” he added. “We’ll take a lot out of tonight and it will be good for us building the next 10 days for that first Test.
“In fairness to South Africa, they started well and were very physical at the breakdown. So, I am proud of the boys coming from 17-3 down to finish so strongly in the second half. I thought we finished on top of them but it just goes to show that these Test matches are going to be a real arm-wrestle, and that’s what it was this evening.
“Even though they [South Africa] haven’t been raining as a team, they have been training individually. They have been able to do running and conditioning, and a lot of their players have come from Japan and Europe where they have had a lot of rugby as well, so I was just really pleased with us and how strong we looked in the second half, and they started flagging a bit.
“There is no doubt that they [South Africa] will benefit from having the game, and they’ll have another hit-out this weekend, but considering they were at full-strength, we got a good feeling for how it was and we needed that tough hit-out.
“The players are pretty bullish in the changing room. They feel pretty confident that they can handle whatever they throw at us going forward.”
If there was any doubt that this match would bring a major step-up in intensity for the Lions after three comfortable wins since landing in South Africa, then that was quickly put to bed when a turbo-charged Springbok ‘A’ ensemble fired out of the blocks to win a series of early turnovers.
It took an excellent last-gasp tackle from Anthony Watson to push Sbu Nkosi‘s trailing foot into touch as the South African winger dived for the corner in the fourth minute. The hosts had to make do with a Morne Steyn offside penalty instead on that occasion, but it wasn’t long before they grabbed the first try of the match, after a harassed Owen Farrell – a late call-up at stand-off after Dan Biggar picked up a minor ankle injury in training yesterday [Tuesday] – was charged down by Eben Etzebeth on the South African 22 and Nkosi ran it in from 70 metres.
By now, the Lions had also lost Liam Williams – the other late call-up, because Josh Adams was joining his partner via Zoom to witness the birth of their first child – to a head injury.
Gatland confirmed afterwards that the Welshman will have to go through World Rugby’s six-stage concussion return-to-play protocol before he can come into contention for next Saturday’s Test match.
South African hands in a ruck, after a thunderous Toby Faletau charge had taken play into the home 22, allowed Farrell to get the Lions off the mark on 27 minutes, but it didn’t alter the general tenor of the match, and South Africa stretched further ahead thanks to moment of magic from the inimitable Cheslin Kolbe, who collected a loose Elliot Daly clearance just inside his own half then skinned Chris Harris with a devastating change of pace and direction, before sending skipper Lukhanyo Am home.
Lions spent the final five minutes of the first half bombarding the South Africa line. They picked up a couple of penalties, they had Wyn Jones held up over the line, they saw Faf de Klerk sent to the sin-bin for failing to wrap in a tackle on Josh Navidi (who wasn’t even carrying the ball), they saw Marco van Staden also head to the sin-bin for hands in a ruck, and they saw Jones have another try disallowed for a double-movement, but the Springboks somehow emerged with their line in tact.
They might have been two men down for the start of the second half, but it was a huge psychological boost to the home side. Opting for some scrums instead of tap-penalties might have been a better option for the tourists.
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Lions started the second period brightly. Conor Murray collected his own up-and-under, Harris delayed his pass brilliantly to put Faletau in space, and Tom Curry just needed someone hitting a line to collect his offload from the deck to create a clear try-scoring opportunity.
South Africa ‘A’ survived that one, but Harris and Curry were both involved again as the Lions kept the pressure on, and Jones finally rumbled in under the shadow of the posts at the third time of asking to haul the tourists right back into the contest.
It was still 17-10 to South Africa when De Klerk and Van Staden returned from the naughty step, but the Lions were now in a groove. Harris put Kolbe on his backside, Kyle Sinckler burst clear on short ball, and Rynhardt Elstadt was penalised for not rolling away which allowed Farrell to narrow the gap to four points.
Louis Rees-Zammit hunted Kolbe down as he tried to deal with. a Daly kicked ahead to help earn his team a penalty two-yards from the South Africa line. Lions went for the jugular, but Rees Zammit couldn’t quite reach the line as he stretched out of a tackle and ended up being penalised for playing on the deck.
Then another momentum swing. Iain Henderson climbing at a line-out gave Steyn a long-range chance but he pushed his penalty efforts to the left of the posts. A brilliant kick from De Klerk put Watson under serious pressure but Daly did brilliantly to tidy up. Steyn snapped a drop-goal but couldn’t hit the target.
The Lions just couldn’t get their hands on the ball, until Adam Beard finally managed to snaffle possession at a South Africa line-out with just 90 seconds left on the clock, but the tourists’ hopes of a dramatic late victory fell flat due to a Zander Fagerson knock-on.
British & Irish Lions: A Watson; L Rees-Zammitt, C Harris, B Aki, L Williams (E Daly 14); D Biggar, C Murray (G Davies 76); W Jones (M Vunipola 46), K Owens (L Cowan-Dickie 51), K Sinckler (Z Fagerson 63), M Itoje, I Henderson (A Beard 63), J Navidi (T Beirne 70), T Curry, T Faletau (S Simmonds 48).
South Africa ‘A’ : W le Roux (J Kriel 56); C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, S Nkosi; M Steyn, F de Klerk; S Kitshoff (C Oosthuizen 63), J Dweba (M Marx 39), T Nyakane (V Koch 41), E Etzebeth, F Mostert, M van Staden (N Janse van Rensburg 65), P du Toit (R Elstadt 42), J Wiese (H Jantjies 73).
South Africa ‘A’: Con: Nkosi, Am; Con: Steyn 2; Pen: Steyn.
Lions: Try: Jones; Con: Farrell; Pen: Farrell 2.
Scoring sequence (South Africa ‘A’ first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 10-3; 15-3; 17-3 (h-t) 17-8; 17-10; 17-13.
Yellow cards –
South Africa: De Klerk (38mins), Van Staden (39mins).