6 July 2009
The folly of making 10 changes to the Springbok starting fifteen for the third test against the British and Irish Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday was shown up when the tourists equalled their biggest ever win over South Africa by running in three tries to nil in a 28-9 victory.
The changes were questionable considering that the Springboks won by only three points and five points in the previous two tests, but coach Peter de Villiers insisted it was an opportunity to see what some of his squad were capable of ahead of the Tri-Nations competition.
It was a strange point of view, to say the least. After all, the Lions tour South Africa only every 12 years and many of the Springboks’ more experienced players had said that facing the best of the British Isles rated second only to contesting the World Cup. Yet, when faced with the opportunity to make history and score the first ever whitewash by either team, De Villiers and his co-selectors opted to use the game to evaluate players, if the coach is to be believed.
Funny thing that. Only two years ago, Jake White withdrew his leading players from the final two tests of the Tri-Nations to prepare for the World Cup, which takes place every four years. Two years later, on the once-in-12-years’ tour of the Lions, a test became preparation for the self-same Tri-Nations.
Some would say that the numerous Springbok changes were a slap in the face for the traditions of Lions’ tours. Some would say it was arrogance. Either way, it did not work.
It is as if the professional era and the almost year round nature of the game has ushered in a concept of acceptable defeats in which some experimentation is acceptable. One wonders how an older generation of Springboks feels about this. Indeed, one wonders how some of the Springboks’ most experienced players, who were left out of the test at Coca-Cola Park, feel about it.
Also, one of the most common ideas bandied about by coaches is that they need to find the right combinations in order to put together a winning team. So, let’s check on the Springbok team for the third test: front, new combination; second row, new combination; loose forwards, new combination; halfbacks, a settled provincial and Super 14 pairing; midfield, new combination; back three, new combination. Mmmm…
Add these various factors together and it’s clear that a game of big risk was being played before a ball had been kicked. And it backfired badly as the Lions equalled their biggest win ever over South Africa.
Admirable spirit and skills
Looking at the Lions, they showed admirable spirit and skills. They, too, showed many changes, most of them injury-enforced, but they did have the advantage of having played nine matches before the final test.
They were clearly superior to the Springboks on the day in Johannesburg – a point of view which only the most one-eyed and silly supporter would question.
Springbok captain John Smit said it himself: “Today the Lions were all over us in every department. They were better than us, they had more intensity and it was a well deserved victory.
“It makes us appreciate the series victory all the more knowing we played a top Lions side.”
‘An amazing experience’
Asked about the relevance of Lions’ tours today, Smit came out strongly in support of them. “It was an amazing experience from start to finish, from the day they arrived,” he said.
“It is still one of the most prized things rugby has to offer. The toughness of game, the competitiveness of the series, how close it was.
“If anything should be kept, the Lions should be kept.”
The Boks took to the field wearing white arm bands with “Justice 4” written on them in support of lock Bakkies Botha, who was banned for two weeks, and was unsuccessful in an appeal against his ban, for cleaning out a player at the ruck.
The incident that led to the ban was a similar action that is seen time after time in rugby, and has been seen for years, although on this occasion it led to a dislocated shoulder for Lions’ prop Adam Jones. Even so, there was some surprise when Lions assistant coach Warren Gatland came out in support of Botha, saying: “From our point of view we don’t have an issue with Bakkies.
“We thought it was a very tough decision on him. Adam Jones didn’t have a problem with it and none of the Lions management had an issue with that clean out.”
From the kick off, the match was played at a furious pace. After three minutes, the Lions forced a penalty after a Springbok tackler held onto the tackled player at a ruck and Stephen Jones, who had not missed a kick in Pretoria, stepped up to take a shot at goal. However, the Welsh flyhalf was off target on this occasion.
The Lions continued to press, but a few turnovers sent them back down the field.
In the eighth minute, the first scrum took place, with Lions’ tighthead prop Phil Vickery up against Springbok loosehead Beast Mtawarira in the front row for the first time since the mauling he received in Durban. The roles were reversed this time around as first Chiliboy Ralapele and then Mtawarira popped up from the scrum and referee Stuart Dickinson penalised South Africa.
Jones lined up the penalty kick and slotted it to put his side into a deserved lead.
Only two minutes later, the Springboks were inside the Lions’ 22. When Wynand Olivier was not immediately released after being tackled, the South Africans were awarded a penalty. Morne Steyn, the hero of the Boks’ second test fight-back, kept his kicking record in the green and gold perfect as he levelled the scores at 3-3.
An enterprising piece of play by Steyn almost set eighthman Ryan Kankowski free, but his little chip over the Lions’ backline favoured the tourists with the bounce.
A strong passage of attacking play by the Springboks took them deep inside the Lions’ 22, but they conceded a turnover and the Lions cleared the danger.
In the 24th minute, the Lions stunned the Springbok supporters with the opening try of the contest. Eighthman Jamie Heaslip made good ground on the charge. He was brought to ground by a tackle, but was not held and quickly stood up and broke through the South African defensive line.
As he was tackled, the Irishman passed on his inside to the 2008 IRB International Player of the Year, Shane Williams, who was flying up on his inside. Williams raced through to dot down under the posts to put his side 8-3 ahead.
Amazingly, Stephen Jones failed to add the extra points from in front of the uprights. As he run up to convert the try, the ball fell over, and under pressure from a number of charging Springboks, he failed to put the ball between the posts with a left-footed drop kick.
Seven minutes later, Williams was again in try scoring mode. This time, he benefited from some superb play by Riki Flutey.
It began when the Lions turned over ball on the halfway line. Moving it swiftly to the left, they found Flutey in some space. As the Springbok defenders moved up to meet the Lions’ backline, Flutey chipped the ball over them. He raced to retrieve it and made it to the ball a split-second before SA fullback Zane Kirchner.
With superb execution and great thinking, the centre knocked the ball back inside to Williams, who ran through unchallenged to score underneath the uprights. Jones converted the try to extend the Lions’ lead to 15-3.
The Springboks were thrown a lifeline when, four minutes from the break, Lions’ lock Simon Shaw drove into the back of Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez with a knee, leaving Du Preez writhing on the ground in agony. Referee Dickinson produced a yellow card, giving South Africa a 15-14 man advantage.
The home side went onto the attack, but when they set up a five-metre lineout they found no give in the Lions’ defence.
However, just before the half-time hooter South Africa was awarded a penalty and Steyn kicked put over the kick to make it 15-6 to the Lions at the break.
Ruan Pienaar appeared at the start of the second half in place of Du Preez, who had lasted only four more minutes after the knee by Shaw. Bismarck du Plessis replaced Chiliboy Ralapele in the front row, restoring the Sharks’ combination of Mtawarira, Du Plessis, and Smit, after the Boks had struggled in the set pieces in the opening period.
The Springboks started the second half with more direction and did most of the early attacking; they had spent most of the first half deep in their own half. Smit and company kept the Lions pinned in their own half and came close to scoring through Kirchner, but he lost the ball in a tackle with the tryline within sight.
Those were some of the Lions’ strengths on the day – their strong, committed tackling, and their ability to turn over ball. Two minutes later, they gained their biggest turnover of the day.
The Springboks were on attack, sweeping into the Lions’ 22, having created a three-to-one overlap. Centre Olivier opted to throw a skip pass to Jongi Nokwe and Lions’ winger Ugo Monye stretched out to intercept the ball and sprint away for a crucial try.
With Jones adding the extra two points, the Lions led 22-6.
After almost an hour, Francois Steyn was brought on to replace Kirchner at fullback. He would prove to be one of the Boks better players on the day.
Shortly after coming on, Steyn was only marginally wide with an astonishing attempted drop goal from outside of the Springboks’ 10-metre line. Then, from a strong run by Steyn, the Springboks were awarded a penalty at a ruck.
Morne Steyn took a shot at goal and was once more on target to reduce the deficit to 22-9.
As the match neared the last 10 minutes, matters threatened to boil over. After the ball had been kicked ahead, three Springboks fell back to dot it down behind the Bok tryline for a 22-metre drop out. Lions’ scrumhalf Mike Phillips ran in front of Steyn, obstructing him and thus preventing a quick kick by the Boks.
The South African players took exception to this and players from both sides became involved. After Heinrich Brussouw grabbed Phillips by the collar and threw him to the ground, referee Dickinson, after consultation with one of his assistants, awarded a penalty against the home team.
Jones kicked the penalty to increase the Lions’ lead to 25-9.
Made to pay
Only two minutes later, South Africa’s frustration was again on view when Du Plessis shouldered Jones with a late charge. That indiscretion gave the men in red a penalty far up the field and in a kickable position again. Jones made them pay with another accurate kick, which put his team 28-9 in front.
With five minutes to play, the Springboks finally found a way over the Lions’ tryline after Francois Steyn had put Odwa Ndungane in the clear. The winger touched down in the right hand corner and the decision was referred to the television match official.
After numerous replays, he ruled that Ndungane had a foot in touch before he grounded the ball. Well done to him for having the conviction to make that ruling, but it’s doubtful that anyone was able to see clear evidence of that.
The Springboks tried desperately to attack, but they seemed to have run out of ideas in the face of excellent defence by the Lions and their efforts were more those of individuals than those of a team.
When the final whistle sounded, the Lions’ had regained some pride, while taking some shine off the Springboks’ test series win.
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