Boks clinch series victory over Lions

29 June 2009

It took a stirring fight-back and a last-gasp kick for the Springboks to beat the British and Irish Lions 28-25 in the second test in Pretoria on Saturday, but the win gave South Africa an unassailable 2-0 series lead over after a controversial, drama-packed encounter.

“This win is colossal,” Springbok skipper John Smit said afterwards. “The ante was upped after last week, and this was a proper test match for the full 80 minutes.

“After losing a player early on, we faced an uphill battle from the word go,” Smit said. “But this team built character over the years from being in dark places, and knows how to find victory in a dark room.”

‘Very disappointing’

Lions’ captain Paul O’Connell reflected afterwards on a missed opportunity, saying: “To lose like this was very disappointing.

“Tough times lie ahead for all of us, but to be honest, we shouldn’t have been in that position. We should’ve played more in the second half, like we did in the first half, but we did not.”

The irony of the South African victory was that the willy-nilly use of Springbok substitutions in the first test had almost resulted in the Boks losing the match, while the substitutions in the second test – not all of them chosen, but forced by injury – won the game for the home side.

Unlike the first test in Durban, in which South Africa got away to a great start and built-up a good first-half lead, the script was reversed in Pretoria, with the Lions dominating the opening stanza and taking a nice lead into the break.

Experience

The experience of the Springbok team, however, played a big role in them being able to pull out a victory. Although other things factored into the win, some of them very controversial, it was the experienced spine of a World Cup winning team that was the ultimate decider.

The series defeat surely stings for the Lions and their passionate supporters because they had opportunities to win both tests. In many ways defeats by five points and three points are far tougher to deal with than defeats by 20 points or 25 points.

The same sort of thinking is behind the pain many South African rugby players and fans feel about losing the 1997 series 2-1 to the Lions. The Springboks outscored the Lions nine tries to three in the series, but still lost.

They ran in three tries to nil in Durban, but none were converted and six penalties missed as the Lions clinched the series with an 18-15 win on the back of five penalties by Neil Jenkins and a dropped goal by Jeremy Guscott.

Controversy

Many Lions supporters will think that they should have won the Pretoria test because, they will contend, Schalk Burger should have been sent off in the first minute of the match, leaving the game as a contest of 14 players against 15. Many in the British media are espousing that viewpoint, and some Lions players have said the same thing.

Burger, who was the only change to the Springbok starting fifteen from the first test, had returned to the South African side after overcoming an injury and he led the team onto the field in his fiftieth test in the green and gold. But boy did he blot his copybook!

The game started with the Lions kicking off and Victor Matfield taking the kick off comfortably – something that he excelled at all afternoon – before the Boks drove the ball impressively up the field.

Referee Christophe Berdos awarded the Springboks a penalty after the Lions halted the progress of the maul illegally, but assistant ref Bryce Lawrence then stepped in and pulled Berdos aside. He said Burger should be shown “at least a yellow card” for “fingers in the eye area” of Luke Fitzgerald.

‘At least a yellow’

It could easily have been a red, considering Lawrence’s recommendation of “at least a yellow”, but Berdos opted to send the flanker to the sin bin only 32 seconds into the contest.

The penalty was reversed and the Lions, displaying their intent, spurned a shot at goal and kicked for the corner flag. From the lineout they forced another penalty and this time opted to kick for goal. Stephen Jones was on target with the easy opprtunity and the Lions were 3-0 up.

The tension between the teams was obvious when Victor Matfield gave a Lions’ player a shove after the whistle had sounded in the fourth minute. Brian O’Driscoll rushed in and threw a few punches at the Springbok lock, which all fell harmlessly wide of the big man. Within moments players from both sides were involved in pushing and shoving and grabbing.

Referee Berdos penalised O’Driscoll as the first man in to add to what was a two-man disagreement, but also warned Springbok flanker Juan Smith.

Silenced

Two minutes later the home support in the Loftus Versfeld crowd was stunned into silence as the Lions broke through for a try.

Flyhalf Stephen Jones took the ball to the right, drew two defenders, and then popped the ball out of the back of his hand as he was tackled to set up an overlap. Fullback Rob Kearney took the pass and raced up the field with Tommy Bowe to his right.

Springbok fullback Francois Steyn was put in a tough position and backed off. Kearney threw a dummy to Bowe and then headed for the tryline. Steyn got a tackle in, but the Irishman stretched over in the corner and scored.

Jones converted with a nice kick and the Lions had leapt into a 10-0 lead in the seventh minute.

Springbok try

When Burger returned to the game, the Springboks were about to throw in to a lineout near the Lions’ 22-metre area. Smit threw deep, picking out Smith. His quick catch and release went to scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who was already on the run. He drew the defence and popped the ball up on his inside for JP Pietersen, who was steaming up at full speed. In the gap, he broke to the outside to race over for a well-executed try.

Bok flyhalf Ruan Pienaar missed the simple conversion, hitting the right-hand post, after Pietersen had taken the ball close in to the uprights.

A few minutes later the Lions extended their lead when Jones landed another penalty to make it 13-5.

It took 15 minutes before the first scrum of the game took place. The Lions, who were on the back foot in the set piece in the Durban test, forced the Springbok scrum backwards this time.

A clever cross kick from Du Preez then found Pietersen on the right wing. He grubbered through when confronted by a defender and Steyn, with clear intent, forced the last Lions’ defender back over the tryline, thus winning the Springboks a five-metre scrum.

Tighthead prop Adam Jones, however, won pats on the back from his team-mates as he disrupted the Springbok scrum and forced a penalty to end a potentially dangerous attacking position for the home team.

Midway through the half, Steyn had a long range attempt at goal. He had the length but not the direction and the Lions retained their eight-point advantage.

More controversy

Another controversial moment occurred when Pietersen hit Kearney late, and it looked like a bad hit at first. Replays revealed that the Springbok winger had been only moments late and that his arm, which he had held up to block Kearney’s kick, had then hit the fullback’s shoulder and bounced up to the side of his head. At any rate, the referee’s decision to award only a penalty to the Lions was the right one.

Five minutes from the break the Lions moved 11 points ahead. After putting the Boks under pressure for an extended period of time, but finding no give in the stubborn South African defence, flyhalf Jones opted for a drop goal. He didn’t hit it sweetly, but it went over and made the score 16-5 to Ian McGeechan’s charges.

In the 39th minute the Lions’ backline was penalised for crossing and obstructing. The penalty was inside the Springboks half and wide out on the left, but Steyn stepped up for a long range attempt at goal, nonetheless. He hit it well and added three points to the Springboks’ total,and gave his team a vital boost just before the break.

The teams went into half-time with the Lions leading 16-8.

Dramatic change

Five minutes into the second half, the game changed dramatically when both Lions’ props were forced from the field with injuries. This led to the bizarre sight of a top tier test match featuring uncontested scrums for almost the entire second half.

Both props were later operated upon in the evening – Jenkins for a fractured cheekbone and Jones for a dislocated shoulder, caused by a Bakkies Botha charge at a ruck, which earned the Springbok hardman a citing.

In the 47th minute the Springboks were awarded a penalty for a high tackle by Matthew Rees on Burger, but Pienaar was again off target with his kick at goal.

A minute later, Pienaar missed once more and some boos started up in the crowd, as well as a call for the Bulls’ Super 14 hero Morne Steyn to take over from him at flyhalf.

Pienaar missed another opportunity three minutes after that and it was clear he was having one of those days when his goal-kicking boots are cold as ice. It also showed the folly of going into a test without a kicker who is at least the kicker for his provincial team. The calls for Morne Steyn grew louder and a big cheer arose as he removed his tracksuit to begin warming up.

Jean de Villiers, who appeared to be injured, was then replaced by Jaque Fourie, and in the 58th minute Andries Bekker and Danie Rossouw replaced Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith respectively.

Steyn on for Pienaar

On the hour mark, the Lions again extended their lead to 11 points when Jones landed another penalty to keep his 100 percent record intact. To the cheers of the Pretoria crowd, Morne Steyn was then sent into action.

Another of the turning points in the match occurred almost immediately afterwards when O’Driscoll, way offsides, charged into a tackle on Rossouw. The pair met with a sickening crash of heads and Rossouw tumbled back to the turf when he tried to stand up. O’Driscoll, too, was in trouble.

Rossouw was replaced by Heinrich Brussouw, which was to prove a major plus for the Springboks. O’Driscoll lasted only a couple of minutes longer and went off.

SA try

In the 62nd minute, for the second time in the game, a well-worked set move by the Springboks resulted in a try. It created some space for Bryan Habana to take a ball at pace and before the Lions could close the gap that had been created he had turned on the afterburners and crashed over the line for a try.

Morne Steyn knocked over the easy conversion and suddenly there were only four points in the game, with the Lions 19-15 ahead.

The Springboks could have made it a one-point game three minutes later when they were awarded a penalty in the Lions’ 22. Bismarck du Plessis took a quick tap and the Lions tackled him before they had retreated 10 metres. Referee Berdos allowed them to get away with it, however, and Paul O’Connell’s men turned the ball over and kicked it to touch.

Brussouw then showed his worth by forcing a penalty for the Boks at a ruck. Flyhalf Steyn stepped up and nailed the kick, leaving the Springboks only a point behind with 13 minutes to play.

The Lions’ four-point advantage was restored soon afterwards as Jones, given a chance to kick at goal from right in front of the posts, slotted the kick to make it 22-18 in favour of the tourists.

Lead change

With six minutes to play, South Africa sent the ball wide to the right where Brussouw straightened up the line before passing to Jaque Fourie on his outside. The big Bok centre lowered his shoulder and knocked Ronan O’Gara flying as the Lions’ substitute attempted a tackle. Then, with two men hanging onto him, Fourie stretched across the tryline and smashed the ball into the Loftus turf.

The decision went to the television match official. After a lengthy wait, the try was awarded and the home fans erupted with joy as South Africa led for the first time in the contest. When Steyn converted superbly from the sidelines the Springboks’ advantage grew to three points.

A high tackle by Andries Bekker then gave the Lions a penalty in a kickable position. Captain O’Connell decided Jones should kick at posts instead of going for the win from a lineout deep in South African territory.

Jones made it six for six on the day – five penalties and a dropped goal – to level the scores at 25-25.

Final minute

In the final minute, O’Gara fielded a kick deep in Lions’ territory. He launched a high-up-and-under and gave chase. Du Preez went up to make the catch and while in the air had his feet knocked out from under him by a shoulder charge from the Irishmen.

Referee Berdos raised his arm for a penalty four metres inside the Springbok half and the ball was handed to Morne Steyn for a 54-metre kick to win the test and the series. Like a veteran, not like the international rookie that he truly is, Steyn comfortably kicked the goal and was immediately swamped by his ecstatic team-mates as the final whistle sounded.

Springbok fans celebrated with their team while many Lions’ players and supporters stared dead-eyed in disbelief, with some of the players slumping to the ground. It was the cruelest of cruel blows.

Third test

After the massive impact of Jaque Fourie, Heinrich Brussouw, and the match-winner Morne Steyn off the bench, it will be interesting to see whether the selectors can find any reason in their minds why those three players should be left out of the starting fifteen at Ellis Park.

In Brussouw’s case the decision has been made for them. Burger was handed an eight-week ban for his contact with Fitzgerald’s eyes – at the lower end of the scale for such offences.

The selectors would have fielded Bekker in Botha’s place in the second row after Botha was handed a two-week ban for not binding when entering a ruck, but Bekker has been ruled out of the Ellis Park match with a knee injury. Instead, Sharks’ captain Johan Muller has been called up to the Springboks squad.

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