I love rugby union and I love the Lions. I loved every second of those two test matches and I wish I didn’t have to wait another four years before experiencing that again. I haven’t felt as emotionally charged watching my two other favourite teams, Wasps and England, in five years or more.
I know none of the men in red who took the field on a personal level and yet I am so proud of their efforts in trying to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a test series in South Africa. There are so many difficulties to overcome when bringing together a Lions team: players who’ve never spoken to each other let alone played together, a lack of preparation and a gruelling match schedule are but a few. However, having endured two Lions tours that have failed to strike the right chord on and off the pitch, this was a return to the ethos and the playing style we have desired since the team were last on African shores.
The “what ifs” of any match are hardly ever worth deliberating, only what actually happened. What might have occurred had Schalk Burger been red-carded in the first minute is of as much value as discussing what might have happened had Ronan O’Gara grown up on a farm in Cork and developed stronger shoulders. When the citing officer deliberates whether Burger will play any part in the sport in the next few months he should see, as the touch judge did, that his fingers deliberately raked the face of Luke Fitzgerald and made a definite contact with the eyes. He should also, as the touch judge and referee failed to do, decide that it should have resulted in a red card and lengthy suspension.
The fact that a yellow card was produced allowed the Lions to take the advantage in the early exchanges, dominate the breakdown and get men on the front foot to take an early and deserved lead. Stephen Jones produced a flawless kicking display, beginning with the penalty from Burger’s indiscretion. This was swiftly followed by a Rob Kearney try after a sublime flicked pass from Jones out of the tackle which was duly converted.
Rob Kearney produced a stunning performance which matched anything Lee Byrne had accomplished in earlier matches. His willingness and precision in taking the high balls peppering the Lions’ 22 was masterful and his explosive pace and ball presentation in contact ensured the ball was recycled every time South Africa attempted this tactic.
With all the territory and possession and a 10-0 score line, the Lions fans were allowed to dream of a test victory as early as midway through the first half. This in turn spurred the red faction of the crowd into some rousing renditions of familiar songs, something they had been embarrassed to do early in the first test given the poor performance.
However it became clear that South Africa would not allow this series to easily slip into a third test decider and they attacked from a line-out deep in opposition territory from first phase with electric pace. It all looked so simple from the bird’s-eye camera view but the best moves often are. Fourie du Preez fixed the back row and JP Pietersen picked a line, took the ball at full pace and powered all the way through to the try line.
The Lions were far from flustered, especially as Ruan Pienaar missed the simple conversion. They worked their way back into scoring positions and Stephen Jones was able to add a penalty and a drop goal to Francois Steyn’s long range penalty, to send the Lions in at 16-8 at half time.
Following the break, it was the Lions who were able to strike first, Jones hitting yet another fine penalty to keep his 100% record in tact and send the Lions into an almost unassailable 19-8 lead.
Rugby hearts have been broken the world over by a certain Mr Habana and his worth to the Springbok team was duly proven as from another first phase move, and as a result of some borderline crossing in the midfield, he was able to skip through a gap and sprint over the try line. What the Lions would have given for a last ditch intervention of the kind Ugo Monye was so cruelly denied by in Durban but it wasn’t to happen and the try was converted to reduce the Lions’ lead to 19-15 with everything to play for.
It was around this time of the match that things started to truly unravel for the Lions, just as it had for the Boks a week prior. O’Driscoll took a hero’s departure as he tackled Danie Brussouw and concussed both himself and the giant Bok in the process. Our own man-mountain, Jamie Roberts, also had to depart the field as he injured his arm from one too many collisions to add to the injuries already suffered by Jenkins and Jones in the front row.
Suddenly the Lions backline had a very lightweight feel and struggled to maintain the defensive rigidity so evident in the first 70 minutes. In these dramatic situations, someone always has to play the fall-guy and in this case the role was taken by Ronan O’Gara. For all he has achieved in his career he has never shaken the criticism of being a poor tackler and it will now haunt him for the rest of his playing days. When faced with a rampaging centre all a lightweight back ever has to do is hit low and hang on for dear life but as Jaque Fourie collected the ball near the touchline at full pace the Munster man was bounced off all too easily. The despairing lunge of Mike Phillips could have been enough to send the Springbok centre into touch but video replays were inconclusive and the benefit of the doubt went to the Springboks, the try was awarded.
By this stage Morne Steyn had taken the field and anyone who’s watched the Blue Bulls in action this season will have known that missing high-pressure kicks is simply not an option for the young fly-half so he duly slotted the conversion to send the Boks into the lead for the first time, 25 – 22.
Still the Lions didn’t give in, a high tackle on Stephen Jones resulting in a difficult penalty that the Welshman struck with ease to level the scores at 25-all. With seconds remaining, both sides seemed to be too tired and too drained to mount one final attack so they decided to play tactical kick tennis down the middle of the pitch, hoping their opponent would make an error.
Having picked himself up from the earlier missed tackle, O’Gara took it upon himself to try to hassle the Boks into making a mistake by putting up a perfectly weighted up and under and attempting to challenge for the ball. However his enthusiasm was tainted by a lack of awareness and as he clattered into the airborne du Preez he didn’t looked to have made sufficient effort to go for the ball and was penalised for taking the man out.
There was never a shred of doubt as to whether Morne Steyn would kick the resulting penalty, only whether there would still be time left for the Lions to mount one more attack. As the clock turned red and the ball sailed over, the final whistle sounded and the Lions hit the floor as the Springboks clambered all over each other in celebration.
For all the furore in the papers today about the Burger incident, I hope that the Lions can win the final Test on Saturday and that this tour be remembered for all the fantastic individuals who made up the playing and back-room team and for 80 minutes, over the course of two tests, played rugby the way it is supposed to be played. Credit also to the Springboks who seem to have developed a winning mentality that brings about some fantastic rugby as well as turning below-par performances into victories and has spurred them onto a World Cup and a Lions series win.
By Jon Hobbs