British and Irish Lions handed important lesson ahead of series with Springboks

·3-min read

On the African plains, the springbok reaches a top speed of 88kph, eight kph faster than the lion that hunts it. But inside the hollow Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday night, the British and Irish Lions in red and the de facto Springboks in green showed that the laws of nature would be upended for three weeks on the rugby field.

This game - which ended 17-13 in favour of the hosts - will officially be recorded as a warm-up match without Test status. Not that the 46 players involved would believe it. This was a bruising, pulsating encounter that was filled with individual pieces of brilliance and enough hostility to ensure a few grudges have room to fester.

South Africa - technically South Africa A but comprising of 23 of the victorious World Cup squad - began proceedings like a team that hasn’t played together for 620 days. They counter rucked with wild abandon and flew into tackles as if they had a magic potion for healing bones. The first significant collision saw Eben Etzebeth clatter into Liam Willaims, forcing the fullback to leave the field soon after with a possible concussion.

But the Lions rallied. The front row of Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinkler stood up to the more fancied South African pack and won a handful of scrum penalties.

The Lions attacked with intent, but were often too predictable (Getty Images)
The Lions attacked with intent, but were often too predictable (Getty Images)

A Morne Steyn penalty opened the spring on five minutes but the game exploded into life when Etzebeth charged down Owen Farrell’s kick. The loose ball was sent right to S’busiso Nkosi who cantered home from inside his own half, shepherded all the way by Damien de Allende whose supporting run ensured Farrell was kept at a safe distance.

A Farrell penalty before the half hour mark put the tourists on the board but the gap on the scoreboard became chasmic when Cheslin Kolbe collected a kick inside his own half. From a seemingly innocuous field position, the man described on the Sky feed as the “Messi of rugby” flicked a switch, stepped two defenders with a drop of the shoulder and twitch of the ankle, rode the subsequent challenge and put Lukhyano Am into try-scoring space after the South African captain ran a trademark line against the grain.

At 17-3, the Lions looked buried but rallied. Tom Curry and Taulupe Faletau looked dangerous when given the freedom of the field and Maro Itoje marshalled his forwards through words and action. The red wave came close to crossing the Springbok line, but was repelled for over five minutes with the whitewash in sight. Even with Faf de Klerk (shoulder tackle) and Marco van Staden (cynical play) sent to the sin-bin, the score remained unchanged as the half time whistle sounded.

The Lions emerged with greater intent. Anthony Watson looked threatening every time he held the ball and with the extra space afforded by the two man advantage he burst through into open territory three minutes after the restart. Curry was again involved in a positive move for the Lions and, after a penalty was quickly tapped, Jones rumbled over for a deserved try.

The South Africans - under the guise of South Africa A - brought their trademark physicality. (REUTERS)
The South Africans - under the guise of South Africa A - brought their trademark physicality. (REUTERS)

Farrell’s conversion brought the Lions within touching distance as each team reverted to type. The tourists looked to run at pace, attacking gaps in the line wherever they appeared. The South Africans emptied the bench and dialled up the brutality despite their waning energy levels. It’s not pretty, but three World Cups in the coffers attest to its effectiveness.

The Lions enjoyed 62 per cent possession and 65 per cent territorial advantage. They dominated every attacking metric including defenders beaten (27 to 5), carries (128 to 63), and metres carried (292 to 205). And yet they always looked like the less effective outfit.

Credit must go to the South African defenders but questions will be asked why a different method of attack was not at least attempted by Conor Murray and his men, especially when two South Africans were serving time off the field.

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