“Lions canter to four-try demolition of Royal XV” is the headline Alastair Campbell would have come up with to describe the Lions’ victory on Saturday afternoon. The reality was far, far removed.
The danger of rose-tinted spectacles is an ever-present when comparing current Lions tours and players to those of yore but if you think back to four, eight or twelve years ago, can you remember feeling so deflated after an opening victory? The Lions are supposed to start their tours with such a bang that minor errors or poor individual performances are swept away on a tide of raw aggression and power.
Before the teams had taken to the field there seemed to be something amiss at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg. The crowd was embarrassingly sparse, the thrill of the Lions’ visit being overshadowed by the Super 14 final taking place a few hundred kilometres down the road between the Bulls and the Chiefs – more on which later.
In the early exchanges the Royal XV dominated the contact zone, committing to the tackle against bigger men and flying in to rucks to slow the Lions down. The Lions’ superior pedigree should have been able to cope with this initial onslaught and it was O’Gara who steadied the ship with an early penalty. However each time the Lions seemed to be mounting a decent attack a basic error would hand possession back to the Royal XV, unfortunately the majority of these errors seemed to stem from Keith Earls.
Anyone can have a bad game, especially someone with limited experience at international level, but it seemed everything Earls touched turned to – as the Afrikaaners would say – kak. Earls wasn’t the only one who struggled to hit the form that got him selected. The pack as a whole were largely ineffective in open play, suffering from England’s disease of catching the ball standing still and ambling towards the defensive line rather than smashing in at full tilt.
As a result, the Royal XV grew in confidence and were good value for their early scores. The first came from a sublime behind-the-back flick from fly-half Coetzee to his captain and no. 6, Koch, to split the defence and bundle over.
If that didn’t serve as a wake-up call then the home team’s second try did. One might have hoped that the South Africans would be so confused about all the recent law changes that they would have forgotten how to maul. However it seemed that the Lions were the ones who had forgotten how to defend against this potent weapon, allowing the Royal’s pack to trundle deep into their 22 before disintegrating, leaving a gap wide enough for the ample-bellied Ryno Barnes to burst through unopposed.
Now leading 18 – 3, the Royal players were thoroughly enjoying their afternoon in the sunshine and the Lions were worried. They knew they had to get a score before half-time to get back in the game before feeling the fury of Sean Edwards in the changing rooms. From a penalty, O’Gara opted to kick for the corner instead of the posts and following a driving maul of their own, the ball was fed out to the fly-half who put in a flicked inside pass to send Tommy Bowe through a gap and under the posts. A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout the British Isles as O’Gara knocked over the conversion and the Lions were able to regroup.
In the second half, the Lions’ superior fitness and technique began to tell. Dominant in the scrum and gaining the ascendancy around the contact zone, they were able to graft themselves into decent positions and O’Gara kicked a penalty to reduce the gap further.
It now seemed that the result we all came to see would unfold in the second half but the Royal XV had one more sting in the tail. A rare attack wide on the left resulted in a third score for the hosts and sent them into a 25 – 13 lead with less than a quarter of the game remaining.
Fortunately for the Lions, while many players around him were damaging their reputations, Lee Byrne was enhancing his. Solid under the high ball all afternoon it was time he reminded Ian McGeechan and the other selectors how his attacking instincts had helped Wales to their most recent Grand Slam. From within his own half he chipped the ball over the first line of defence, then with the touch of a footballer delicately volleyed the ball on twice to confound the cover defence and score.
This score was closely followed by another as Alun Wyn-Jones bundled over from close range to finally put the Lions ahead. For the last two minutes of the match the Lions played the rugby this squad are capable of. One move saw forwards linking with backs and the ball being popped between the hands before Martyn Williams gave the final telling pass to O’Gara who breezed under the posts and made the scoreline semi-respectable. Shortly after, the final whistle blew and the Lions had taken it, 37 – 25.
Aside from the performances of Jamie Roberts and Lee Byrne, there was very little to get excited about in the first Lions match of the tour. The same cannot be said of the South African players who dominated the Super 14 final between the Bulls and the Chiefs. Any hope that some big-name Springboks might be tired, injured or out of form were swept away as Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Pierre Spies and friends put in a performance that will cause some concern to the Lions management – if they weren’t already aware of the mountain they have to climb!
by Jonathan Hobbs