British and Irish Lions 25 – 28 South Africa

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

6 thoughts on “British and Irish Lions 25 – 28 South Africa

  1. Fantastic article Jon – you really are maturing into a very eloquent young man!

    Despite my initial anger at RoG’s non-existent tackling and poor decision making, I am of the opinion that it isn’t his fault he was on the pitch.
    Focussing on the negatives won’t change the result, and regardless of the scoreline the game was the best example of test rugby I have ever seen. I have never felt such a range of exhaustive emotion in an 80 minute period. It had everything a rugby game could possibly want, in terms of big hits, awesome talent and controversy.

    But – to focus on the negatives..!

    It did highlight how Po’C isn’t the captain he was supposed to materialise into, as the key leadership & passion on the pitch appeared to come from O’Driscoll and Jones in my opinion. This was highlighted after O’D and Phillips’ scuffle with Botha in the first half, when O’D was seen goading Botha and saying ‘Bring it on’, with a demonic smile on his face. O’Connell played ok, getting round the park and making himself known, but did nothing to rally his players or impose himself as captain (hence O’driscoll being targeted instead of him).

    Final thought,

    Burger really is terribly stupid.

  2. nice piece spike.

    i think deliberating ‘what ifs’ is a credible pastime for bloggers or those discussing the game over a pint, as long as we don’t harp on about it for too long…

    i don’t think 2001 was a bad lions tour, there were some politics behind the scenes, but nothing that would still be remembered if we’d achieved the series win that was there for the taking in the second test in melbourne before another hand-wringing series of ‘what ifs?’

    although there’s been no proof of fourie being in touch, the whole benefit of the doubt issue is one i’m not clear on, and the TJ – lawrence again i believe – seemed very anxious that the TMO check the foot in touch. from one angle it looked possible, if the teams had been wearing significantly different colour socks that might have made it easier! if there hadn’t been a TMO i think the TJ would have raised his flag.

    mcgeechan’s a legend, but i think both the selection and use of bench players is something he will regret. if o’gara was hurt, he should have been replaced, we still had harry ellis and mike phillips would have managed just fine in the centre for 5 minutes.

    o’gara will inevitably get the criticism. i wouldn’t criticise his decision to kick upfield in the last minute – he gambled on keeping the ball in play in a bid to set up some form of winning platform for his team, rather than kick to touch and give SA likely possession for the ‘last play’ from a lineout near halfway. but his subsequent chase and challenge was an error of judgment, and in the unforgiving environment of test match rugby you have to expect flak if you stuff up. just ask ugo monye, or david campese (1989)

    brian moore has completely ‘gone off on one’ in both the telegraph and on five live this morning, especially furious about lawrence’s officiating in both games.

    burger’s ban – now confirmed at eight weeks – is much too low. at a minimum he should have received 3 months taking him out of the whole tri-nations, as it is he will miss only 3 of SA’s 6 games. botha just misses this saturday’s dead rubber, which is only a token punishment.

    big up to simon shaw – several people were suggesting the old boy wouldn’t last the pace

  3. As a bok supporter i have a different perspective.This was agreat test match-the confrontation was frightening.Hats off to the boks.They had not played together for 7 months and yet beat the best of british.Why was bod not cited for his shoulder charge on roussow?It hadmore maice than bakkies counter -ruck.McGeechans gracelessnes in defeat is awful.the lions were beaten by a team of greatness.John Smit has been a gracious in victory and a great leader.Burger was a disgrace and got the same ban as the Italian captain.

  4. Agree that (as a Brit) my view is very one sided but…

    .. I think BoD was potentially offside for his tackle, but if you watch the replay it looks like he went in with the intention of tackling and had his arms ready to wrap up, but as he knocked himself out just bounced to the floor instead. His body wasn’t in the position to do a shoulder charge, it was in the position to make a tackle.

    It was an amazing game, and I don’t begrudge the Saffa’s the victory – you didn’t win by cheating, you won by playing great rugby and through strength in depth.

    But all credit to the Lion’s, played with passion and pride, put their bodies on the line and in the end were very unlucky to lose. Also showed the damage a scratch team can do – it may well be that the South African’s hadn’t played together for 7 months. Four weeks ago the Lions had never played together and would have beaten the boks in their own back yard were they not unfortunate with injury (or if RoG could tackle)!

  5. The Lions started playing the warm-ups in SA looking very mediocre and I thought they were looking sub-standard for such a ‘rated’ team. Credit to them, they raised their game in the tests and I would have preferred seeing a draw on this second test.

    The first test the Lions could have won if some of their missed points had gone their way (2 tries not counting). This second test was too close to say the Boks deserved it outright. Burger with a red card would have been a huge swing factor for the Lions, the Boks missed a few kicks (and points) but to win like that in the last minute from a penalty is more luck than skill and home crowd advantage counts.

    The Lions centres outshine the Boks, although the Lions play very flat (near off-side a lot) and the scissor dummy running is close to obstruction but they get away with it. The Boks dominate up front and defend well. Two different styles and very exciting.

    A good tour all-round.

  6. Depressing truth is that the gulf between north and south is very much there again, and has been since 2003. The boks are sheer class – some fabulous individuals and a very cohesive and effective team unit. Much as it hurts to see the Lions lose, you have to pay respect to their technique and their resilience. AB’s are close. Wales may have beaten Australia at home last year, but would anyone really put money on any NH team to beat any of the tri-nations sides on neutral ground?

    While we can all point to things that could have been done better on this tour, overall I’d give the management team an A-, and doubt very much that any other Lions outfit could have done better. It’s a shame for people like Kearney, Jenkins, Roberts and BOD who truly are world class, but that’s just five from all of the home nations.

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