Cell C Sharks 7
British & Irish Lions 54
A MATCH that was uncertain of going ahead until two hours before kick-off ended with the Lions comfortably recording a second win in four days at Ellis Park in Johannesburg last night.
Missing nine of their South African internationals, the Sharks were badly short of experience in some departments, but caused problems in the scrum at times and were dangerous out wide. However, four tries in the first half had the Lions well in control, and although they ran out of steam a little in the second, they added four more scores to make it a solid victory.
Duhan van der Merwe claimed a hat-trick to add to his single score against Japan and was named man of the match, while Josh Adams also scored three tries, taking his tally to eight. Some of the play was too loose at times, but, especially given the circumstances, this was a definite step up by the Lions, and a display of mental fortitude of which head coach Warren Gatland was proud.
Following the news earlier in the day that a member of the Lions management had tested positive earlier and two players had gone into isolation after being identified as close contacts, the match was only given the go-ahead after the Lions squad underwent another round of Covid-19 testing. Around an hour before the game, the tourists announced that, in addition to the management member, one player had also tested positive following the PCR testing.
“The two individuals had a total of 12 close contacts – eight players and four staff members – all of whom have been placed into isolation at the team hotel,” the Lions announced in a press release. “All other members of the touring party returned negative results following PCR testing earlier today.”
Because of the need for those players to isolate, the Lions revamped their squad for the match. The pack remained as advertised, but behind the scrum there were four changes: Adams replaced Liam Wiliams at full-back, Louis Rees-Zammit came in on the right wing for Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell took over at stand-off from Dan Biggar and Ali Price replaced Gareth Davies at scrum-half.
On the bench, Maro Itoje took over from Tadhg Beirne as lock replacement, while the original backs replacements of Conor Murray, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris all stood down. Hamish Watson, Finn Russell and Taulupe Faletua came on for those three, meaning that, despite the numbers on the jerseys, there was a seven-one split on the bench between forwards and backs – a division that was as unusual and improbable as the circumstances surrounding the match itself.
Notwithstanding all that disruption, the Lions got into their stride immediately, and took a third-minute lead when Adams collected an off-load from Rees-Zammit. That took the Welshman’s tally to six tries from tour games, and Owen Farrell, whose penalty to touch had set up the platform for the score, made it 7-0 with the conversion. The visitors went back on the attack almost instantly, and when Sam Simmonds found Van der Merwe out wide, the winger ran in the second try of the game, again converted by Farrell.
A few instances of indiscipline by the Lions allowed the Sharks deep into their territory after that, but an excellent turnover by Cowan-Dickie ended the danger just as a score looked likely. Midway through the half, Sharks winger Werner Kok was sinbinned for killing the ball, and although within a minute the Lions forced their way over the goalline from a diving maul, Cowan-Dickie lost control while attempting to ground.
Van der Merwe made no mistake minutes later, though, following up a Farrell kick-through to tap ahead then touch down in the right corner. The England stand-off was narrowly wide with the conversion attempt – his first miss of the tour.
The first half threatened to fizzle out with a further score for a while, but inside the final minute Bundee Aki blasted his way over the line after a driving lineout. Farrell was on target with the last touch of the half, making the score at the break 26-0.
Tom Curry fumbled a good chance to make it 31-0 early in the second half, and after 50 minutes the Sharks hit back with an outstanding counter-attack that ended with blindside James Venter touching down and Curwin Bosch adding the two points.
The Lions looked like they were feeling the heat – or more probably the altitude – for a while, but when the ball went loose from a turnover Adams hacked ahead and touched down to take his tally to seven. Finn Russell, newly on for Owen Farrell, converted.
Adams then created his team’s sixth try for fellow-Welshman Louis Rees-Zammit. Fielding a kick ahead, the full-back passed to the winger out of the tackle, and no-one came close to stopping Rees-Zammit as he raced to the line from well within his own half.
Josh Navidi thought he had got the seventh after another Shark attack broke down in midfield, but the score was chalked off for offside against Aki. Van der Merwe completed his hat-trick five minutes from time thanks to a quick flip-on from Elliot Daly.
With Russell converting those last two tries, that took the Lions close to the half-century. They went past it two minutes from time when Adams – who else? – profited from a tiring defence to complete his hat-trick after Faletau had looped out a pass to him. Russell was on target again, and a potentially awkward encounter had been dealt with adroitly.
“It’s been quite surreal and a real challenge considering the staff and players were in our rooms until 6pm,” Gatland said after the game. “We didn’t get the results back until 5.30pm and then had to make a few changes. But I’m incredibly proud of the performance and of the players and how they adjusted, and how the staff worked so hard today.
“More than the performance or the result, I’m really proud of the togetherness of the group and how much they want to go out there and perform and play and wear this jersey. My message to the players is let’s use this as a positive. Nothing’s going to faze us. We weren’t in control of things so we just had to go with the flow and adjust. The players were absolutely outstanding in their approach.”
Gatland revealed that Price had gone into the game carrying a quad knock, while Russell had had a sore Achilles. There were a couple of minor problems late in the game too, the coach explained.
“We took Duhan van der Merwe off so we were down to 14 men – his hamstrings were tightening up. Then Louis Rees-Zammit’s hamstrings started tightening up as well, so we played the last few minutes with 13 men when the game was comfortably in the bag.”
Inevitably, questions were raised today about the viability of the tour, but Gatland insisted he was confident that the Test series can go ahead. “I honestly believe we will have a Test series,” he added. “We knew there was going to be certain challenges, but we’re hopeful we can get things back on track and this Test series can go ahead.”
Sharks: M Libbok (A Volmink 64); W Kok, J Ward, M Louw, T Abrahams; C Bosch, J Hendrikse (G Williams 67); K Mona (N Mchunu 46), F Mbatha (K van Vuuren 55), K Mchunu (W Herbst 46), R van Heerden (J van der Mescht 61), H Andrews (R Hugo 8), J Venter, T Bholi (D Richardson 55), P Buthelezi (captain).
Lions: J Adams; L Rees-Zammit, E Daly, B Aki, D van der Merwe; O Farrell (F Russell 51), A Price; M Vunipola (R Sutherland 51), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens 55), Z Fagerson (T Furlong), I Henderson (captain) (M Itoje 68), A Beard , J Navidi (H Watson 71), T Curry (T Faletau 63), S Simmonds (J Conan 63). .
Scorers: Sharks: Try: Venter. Con: Bosch.
Lions: Tries: Adams 3, Van der Merwe 3, Aki, Rees-Zammit. Cons: Farrell 3, Russell 4.
Yellow card: Sharks: Kok 20.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).