South Africa 27
British & Irish Lions 9
WHAT a difference a week makes. The world champion Springboks roared back into this Test series with a towering second half performance which left the Lions lost and listless by the end. It is a long way back for Warren Gatland’s side with only six days to find the answers they need to the tough questions which stumped them here.
The Springboks dominated the set-piece, winning a succession of scrum penalties and squeezing the life out of the tourists with their line-out maul. They pulverised the Lions at the breakdown, they swamped their midfield, and they tortured the back-three with a vicious aerial bombardment. Lions discipline disintegrated and they were a distant second best in almost every facet of the game during the second 40 minutes.
It is not going to be about a few tweaks and hoping for a bit better luck. The Lions are in big trouble because that second half was a physical and a psychological mauling.
“We were happy with the way it was going at half-time but in the second half we just didn’t get anything, really,” said Lions head coach Warren Gatland afterwards. “We just had no momentum, no opportunity to play, and nothing at all from any kick-returns whether it was us or them, so that was disappointing.
“The game was very, very slow in terms of how often the clock was stopped, and they did a good job of managing that by slowing the game down, which was frustrating for us. It was difficult to get that rhythm in the second half because of how much of it was stop-start.
“The players are obviously very disappointed but next Saturday is a cup final and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it and prepare for it,” he added. “There’s a few things we’ve got to tidy up in terms of our game, but its one-all and they [South Africa] put a huge amount of emotion into that game so we’ve got that chance next week to hopefully tie the series up.”
Given what was at stake, and the tenor of the build-up, it was no surprise that we got a flare up early on, with almost every player on the park adding their tuppence but the face-off between Alun Wyn Jones and opposite number Eben Etzebeth the focal point. That gave referee Ben O’Keeffe an opportunity to lay down the law to the two captains, but it didn’t really register because the niggle continued throughout the first half and into the second-half, until South Africa were so far ahead that the sting dropped out of the match.
Scottish centre Chris Harris made an early impression with a huge hit on opposite number Lukhanyo Am but South Africa kept the pressure on and a Lions offside allowed Handré Pollard to edge the hosts into a fifth minute lead.
Lions came back. They were tentative, but managed to slowly work their way to just shy of South Africa’s 22, then Dan Biggar hoisted a high one which Willie le Roux knocked on under pressure from Duhan van Der Merwe and Harris. The tourists secured the scrum possession and when Jasper Wiese was penalised for a no-arms tackle right in front of the posts a few phases later, Biggar sent over the three points to square the match with 10 minutes played.
Biggar edged the Lions ahead with an offside penalty on 16 minutes, but the tourists then failed to collect the restart and were fortunate on this occasion that Pollard was off target with his shot at goal from 40 yards out after Hogg was penalised for holding on.
The Springboks lost 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit in the 21st minute. He had suffered a shoulder injury from a late tackle by van der Merwe in the opening minutes and battled on bravely, but now couldn’t continue. The home side didn’t let it knock them off their stride.
Lions were reduced to 14 men for 10 minutes when van der Merwe got himself in a muddle chasing a loose pass and ended up tripping opposite number Cheslin Kolbe, but the disparity in numbers was short-lived because just two minutes later Kolbe ran into Conor Murray at the height of his leap for a high ball, and the winger was perhaps lucky that the colour of his card was yellow and not red. It wasn’t intentional but it was dangerous.
That incident prompted another round of pushing and pulling and O’Keeffe had another stern chat with the captains, promising that he would happily start flashing more cards if there was any more shenanigans.
Good work from Makazole Mapimpi in getting over the tackled Stuart Hogg to compete for the ball led to another penalty opportunity for Pollard, and this time he nailed it from 45-metres out and just five yards in from the right touchline.
Robbie Henshaw came within a whisker of claiming the game’s opening try when he collected Conor Murray‘s chip into the in-goal area, but Siya Kolisi did brilliantly to dislodge the ball as the Irish centre tried to force it down.
Play was taken back for a no-arms tackle by Bongi Mbonambi on Tom Curry, and Biggar slotted the points from right in front of the posts, meaning the Lions led by three at the break and were looking good for a 2-0 series lead.
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South Africa didn’t see it that way, and they fired out the blocks after the the interval, twice getting the better of Hogg in the air, winning a penalty at a scrum, and launching a ferocious line-out drive, before Pollard eventually sent Mapimpi in for the first try of the match with a well-judged kick to the left wing. It was a rare shaft of light in what was generally a four encounter.
Pollard missed the conversion meaning the hosts were only two points ahead, and when Kwagga Smith was perhaps harshly penalised as he tried to rip the ball from Hogg in a tackle, Biggar had an opportunity to edge the tourists back in front, but he hit the post.
That was the last time the Lions were really in the game, and there was half an hour still to play. South Africa were totally dominant in both scrum and line-out, and they were persecuting Hogg and van der Merwe in the air. Another powerful line-out drive had the Lions frantically back-pedalling, before Faf de Klerk laced a grubber forward which Am managed to reach and touch down just before it crossed the dead-ball line.
As Lions discipline disintegrated, it felt like we were watching last weekend’s match in reverse. Lions won the second half 19-5 last week and lost it 21-0 this week. The tourists’ only hope seemed to be that their vaunted superior match fitness would swing the game back their way in the final quarter – but the hosts didn’t ease off at all.
Three more penalties from Pollard during the final 10 minutes stretched the home lead out to 18 points.
Changes are likely next week and Hogg’s position will come under scrutiny, with Liam Williams‘ ability dealing with the high ball likely to be a big draw for the coaching team given the inevitability of another aerial assault.
“It is about making sure that we do a proper review of the game and look at individuals before deciding if we need to make some changes,” said Gatland.
“Obviously, Liam was disappointed [to miss out this week] and he is one of those players that will come into contention, as will others as well. Or do we put that same team out and give them a chance to redeem themselves? These are the conversations we’ll have over the next couple of days.”
South Africa: W le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi (D Willemse 67); H Pollard, F de Klerk (H Jantjies 63); S Kitshoff (T Nyakane 59), B Mbonambi (M Marx 56), F Malherbe (V Koch 56), E Etzebeth, F Mostert, S Kolisi (M van Staden 72), P du Toit (K Smith 21), J Weise (L de Jager 56).
Lions: S Hogg; A Watson, C Harris (E Daly 61), R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; D Biggar (O Farrell 57), C Murray (A Price 58); M Vunipola (R Sutherland 56), L Cowan-Dickie (K Owens 56), T Furlong (K Sinckler 56), M Itoje, A Jones (captain), C Lawes (T Beirne 71), T Curry, J Conan (T Faletau 59).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe.
South Africa: Try: Mapimpi, Am; Con: Pollard; Pen: Pollard 4.
Lions: Pens: Biggar 3.
Scoring sequence (South Africa first): 3-0; 3-3; 3-6; 6-6; 6-9 (h-t) 11-9; 16-9; 18-9; 21-9; 24-9.
Yellow cards –
South Africa: Kolbe (24mins)
Lions: Van der Merwe (22mins)