The Lions rollercoaster hit Durban yesterday to face their toughest challenge yet, this year’s 6th place Super 14 finishers, the Sharks.
The Lions’ midweek team has had the feel of being the stronger side by comparison with the Saturday squad on this tour. With the addition of tour captain Paul O’Connell to yesterday’s starting line-up those thoughts were magnified. So with expectations amongst Lions fans high, the team took to the field to improve in the contact zone and keep the winning momentum going.
Overall the Lions did their job, with certain individuals standing out for praise, giving their fans just enough hope that the test series will be competitive and could even swing the tourists’ way.
One of the most encouraging signs of this tour has been the Lions’ ability to dominate territory and possession in the early exchanges. Conversely, one of the most frustrating aspects has been their inability to turn this advantage into points and this was again evident as the Lions were camped in the Sharks 22 for phase after phase without being willing to try anything more adventurous than forward “pick and go’s”.
On the other hand, this does seem to have the effect of tiring and battering the home defence into submission so that later in the match the Lions tend to finish the stronger of the teams so perhaps the lack of points won’t concern McGeechan and his staff.
Indeed that was exactly the case with yesterday’s match, a first-half Lee Mears try, who used his stocky frame to good effect throughout and who seems to understand as well as any of the Lions forwards that he needs to ensure support is nearby and prepared before taking the ball on, was the only reward from plenty of effort. A sole Rory Kockott penalty for the hosts sending the teams in with the score at 7 – 3.
Kockott would have been expecting to have made the emerging boks’ squad to have a second crack at the Lions, such was his form in the Super 14 competition this season but was unlucky not to do so. It is testament to Mike Phillips’ pedigree that he completely outplayed his counterpart throughout.
Phillips has been given every opportunity to rise above his fellow scrum-halves this tour and he has done so by playing the abrasive, heads-up rugby that Wales have mastered. From time to time he takes a bit too long to make up his mind which way to go, who to pass to, but even if he’s caught by two, three or four opposition forwards he always seems to take the tackle on his own terms and present the ball back safely.
Yesterday he sealed a fine performance with a wonderfully selfish try which came from exposing one of the very rare miscalculations in the Sharks’ defence then completely bamboozling the cover defenders to shimmy and dummy his way over in the corner. We’ve seen plenty of try-scoring opportunities go begging on this tour and Phillips’ single-minded approach to getting over the try-line might well prove beneficial in a tight test match.
With the Sharks’ defence tiring and the Lions sniffing blood, further well-worked tries came from the electric Luke Fitzgerald, the measured Lee Byrne and the combative Jamie Heaslip to render the score line a touch flattering but very encouraging given the sole three points the Sharks were able to muster.
The initial response from both pundits and fans following the match wasn’t overly enthusiastic. The Lions were penalised time and time again at both scrum and breakdown which is one concern that hasn’t yet been remedied by the coaching team and will need to be given plenty of thought in the next 10 days. However having had a night to sleep on it, the fact that despite these difficulties the Lions still managed to defeat a top Super 14 side by a record margin gives us cause for more optimism than most will have had before the tour began.
Are you more confident now than you were 3 weeks ago?