Springboks hold off Lions

22 June 2009

South Africa held on for a 26-21 win over the British and Irish Lions in the first test in Durban on Saturday to put the world champions in prime position to secure a series victory. Never before in their history have the Lions trailed in a series in South Africa and gone on to win it.

The truth be told, the Springboks should have won the match by a far more comfortable margin, although the Lions created a number of excellent opportunities that were stopped at the last split-second only.

Behind a dominant pack in the set pieces in the first half, thanks mainly to Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, who destroyed Lions tighthead Phil Vickery time after time, the Boks built up a comfortable 19-7 advantage at the break.

Clawed their way back

Not long after the restart they increased their advantage to 26-7, but a questionable stream of substitutions from the hour-mark onwards, during which the entire South African bench was given a run, led to the Lions clawing their way back into the contest. In the end they came up just short.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ excuse afterwards that “the Lions are a brilliant team” was seen differently by others. Keith Wood, hooker for the 1997 Lions team that won the series two-one, wrote in The Telegraph that he found De Villiers’ early substitutions of some of his leading players “a tad arrogant”.

The general consensus – in both local and UK newspapers – was that De Villiers allowed the Lions back into the game by pulling off some of his most important players far too soon.

A bad mistake

Watching the coach being interviewed afterwards, it was not so much his words but his manner that suggested that he knew he had made a mistake.

It was an error that almost backfired as the Lions pressured the Boks for extended periods during the second half, pinning the hosts in their 22-metre area.

Twice the pressure led to converted tries. Like many times in the past, however, South Africa turned to captain John Smit to lend a calming hand. He had been substituted, but his replacement Deon Carstens suffered an injury shortly after coming on and Smit returned to the fray to see his men over the finishing line.

Ticket prices

Before the match, the Absa Stadium in Durban was swathed in a tide of red as Lions’ supporters dominated the crowd. Their presence was far greater than it had been 12 years earlier at the same ground.

Besides the fact that the Lions have wonderful supporters, it also spoke to the fact that tickets for the tests cost R1 140 per person – R4 560 per family of four – plus another R50 for the match programme.

While the Lions fans can afford that amount with the favourable exchange rate – and the costs favour them far more than South Africans – one must question the wisdom of the SA Rugby Union’s pricing, which certainly leaves the majority of local fans with a snowball’s chance in hell of being able to see their heroes in action.

In 1998, then Springbok coach Nic Mallett was axed after criticising the ticket costs of R350 for Bok tests. Eleven years later, that amount has increased 300%. What else has gone up by 300% in the same amount of time?

First opportunity

It was the Lions who had the first opportunity to put up points in the game when JP Pietersen was a little too hasty in his bid to chase a kick upfield. Referee Bryce Lawrence awarded a penanlty to the toursists and Stephen Jones stepped up to take a shot at goal.

The flyhalf, who takes probably the least amount of time over his kicks among top class international kickers, was wide of the mark.

A few minutes later, an excellent kick into the Lions’ left-hand corner by Fourie du Preez, and good chasing by JP Pietersen, forced a Springbok scrum only five-metres from the opposition’s tryline. The ball was moved smartly to the left and then recycled quickly, with plenty of men lined up to take a crack at the Lions’ line.

Captain’s try

It was captain John Smit, charging onto the ball at pace, who did the trick, bursting through a gap between two players to crash over for the first points of the contest in the fifth minute. Ruan Pienaar added the extras to put the hosts into a 7-0 lead.

Only two minutes after that, the Lions sounded a massive warning to the Boks when they moved a ball out wide to the left. There was a hint of a forward pass to Ugo Monye, but the officials let it go and the winger pinned his ears back and dived for the left-hand corner.

Pietersen tackled him, bringing him up slightly short of the whitewash, but momentum was set to take him over for the five points. Jean de Villiers, though, came across to support Pietersen and managed to get his arm under the ball and rip it free.

After a comical consultation between referee Lawrence and the French television match official Christophe Berdos, during which they struggled to understand one another, Lawrence awarded a 22-metre drop out when the Lions should have been awarded a five-metre scrum.

Scrum domination

Shortly afterwards, the Springboks won a penalty when Mtawarira drove Vickery back at a rate of knots and the Lions’ scrum collapsed. Pienaar slotted his kick at goal and South Africa were out to a 10-0 lead in as many minutes.

The Lions had an opportunity to cut the South African lead to four points when Habana was somewhat unfortunate to be penalised for holding onto the ball. Jones, though, sent his kick past the left-hand upright and the Lions remained 10 points adrift.

Midway through the half, Du Preez made a nice sniping break around the blind side and down the right hand touchline. He beat the first attempted tackle, but was taken out by a shoulder charge from flanker Tom Croft as he was about to kick through.

Referee Lawrence had a word with Croft and awarded the Springboks another penalty. This time Steyn was handed the ball to have a shot from the right hand touchline and some distance from the uprights. He was spot on with his aim and South Africa’s lead increased to 13 points.

Lions’ response

The Lions hit back quickly a few minutes later. After moving the ball slickly to the right, Jamie Roberts smashed into a half-gap in the midfield, drawing two tacklers before releasing his centre partner Brian O’Driscoll. The Irish star made some running before drawing another tackler and setting Croft free to run in for a try.

Jones knocked over the conversion and suddenly what had appeared to be a Springbok cruise was a contest once again with the hosts 13-7 in front.

When Lions’ skipper Paul O’Connell was blown up for going off his feet at a ruck, Steyn tried a long range shot at goal. He had enough distance, but lacked the direction.

The Boks didn’t have to wait long to increase their lead, however, as Mtawarira, to cries of “BEAST!” from the Durban crowd, forced another penalty out of Vickery. Pienaar made it count by landing his third kick out of three to put South Africa nine points in the clear.

Pienaar then added another penalty to make it 19-7 as the Lions faced penalty after penalty under the Springbok onslaught, which was especially evident in the set pieces.

Half-time

The Springbok flyhalf could have taken South Africa into the twenties before the break, but he missed for the first time on the day and the half-time score stayed at 19-7.

The Lions, inevitably made a front row change at the break, bringing on Adam Jones for Vickery.

Early in the second half, the Boks produced a superb rolling maul, forcing the Lions to retreat. They eventually managed to slow the maul down, but did so by entering it from the side and the referee awarded a penalty to South Africa inside the Lions’ 22. SA captain John Smit rolled the dice and told Pienaar to kick for touch.

Springbok try

From the resulting lineout, the Springboks formed another rolling maul and after some excellent control blasted the Lions off the ball as Heinrich Brussouw crashed over for a try. Pienaar added the extras and only 10 minutes into the second period it was South Africa 26, the Lions 7.

Once again, the Lions came roaring back and scrumhalf Mike Phillips, from close range, burst through the middle of the Boks’ ruck defence and came within centimetres of scoring, but just before he grounded the ball Bakkies Botha knocked it out of his grasp and South Africa were awarded a scrum.

The stream of substitutions began three minutes later, with Danie Rossouw coming on for Brussouw, who played like he belonged in his first start for the Springboks.

A nice break from Tommy Bowe took the tourists deep into the South African 22, but his pass was spilled and the danger averted.

Strange refereeing decision

One of the assistant referees then spoke to referee Lawrence and alerted him to some foul play by Matthew Rees. Lawrence called it a punch, but inexplicably failed to send Rees off. Just as well he didn’t either, as Rees’ so-called punch was revealed by slow motion replays to be nothing more than a soft slap at most, although he had, no doubt, changed his mind about delivering a punch part way through doing so.

Four minutes after Brussouw’s departure, Andries Bekker and Jaque Fourie were added to the Bok mix.

With 15 minutes to play, the Springboks’ 19-point lead and the Lions’ desperation to get back into the match was underlined when they won a penalty deep in South African territory. An easy kick at posts was on offer, but the Lions opted for a scrum, needing more than three points at a time to have a chance to win the game.

Pienaar departed for a blood bin treatment, allowing Morne Steyn on for his first Springbok cap, while Smit and Mtawarira were taken from the front row.

Croft’s second

The Lions’ decision not to kick at goal some minutes earlier was rewarded in the 67th minute when, after having set up camp in the SA 22, they scored their second try. After holding the ball through more than 10 phases they finally found some space in the middle of the field and Croft took a try-scoring pass from O’Driscoll for the second time.

Jones converted from just left of the posts and the score had become 26-14 in South Africa’s favour.

Shortly afterwards, Monye looked odds-on to score, but Steyn, with a desperate and excellent convering tackle knocked the ball loose with the tryline beckoning the winger.

Phillips dots down

It didn’t take long for the Lions to score, however, as they kept the Springboks pinned deep in their 22. Scrumhalf Phillips went over after spotting a gap and when Jones added two points for the conversion there were only five points in the match, with South Africa 26-21 ahead and five minutes to play.

South African captain John Smit was soon back on the field, in the tension-filled atmosphere, trotting to a scrum slowly while saying plenty to his team-mates to calm them as he passed by.

The Lions had an opportunity to kick for posts, but with three minutes to play and five points needed for a win they opted to go for a lineout and went unrewarded.

In the final minute, Roberts, who had been impressive in the Lions’ midfield, was penalised for holding onto a ball on the ground. Pienaar kicked the penalty into touch and the Boks won the subsequent lineout before clearing the ball to touch once more, bringing the final whistle from referee Lawrence.

It was with a sense of relief that they claimed victory. It could have been with a sense of elation, but the hasty substitutions, which coach De Villiers said were aimed at speeding up the game, backfired badly.

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