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The Boks must produce backlash after getting taste of their own medicine

The Lions inflicted serious damage on the hosts at the maul and through their kicking game.

SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE LIONS’ SECOND-half performance in Cape Town on Saturday was wonderfully Springboks-esque.

Warren Gatland’s side gave Kwagga Smith and the Springboks backfield a nightmarish time with their kicking game after the half-time break, consistently regaining possession and giving themselves huge momentum.

Ali Price’s box-kicking did major damage as the likes of Tom Curry and Duhan van der Merwe chased energetically and accurately. It was the kind of kick pressure that the Boks usually rely on when they’re winning and we even saw it from them on Saturday in the first half before the Lions got a grip on that aspect of the game.

Meanwhile, the Lions’ maul was superbly effective. Their only try of the game came from a brilliant collective effort from the forwards after a brave call to go into the left corner. The confidence from Alun Wyn Jones and co. was clear as they didn’t even think about taking the easy three points on offer.

Again, we are so used to watching the Springboks marching teams backwards with their maul but Rassie Erasmus’ side got a taste of their own medicine in this area too. That Luke Cowan-Dickie try soon after half-time was a massive moment in deciding this contest.

The Boks certainly won’t have enjoyed being beaten up front and in the air, two areas of the game in which they take major pride, while their scrum wasn’t the strength it usually is – particularly after they changed the entire front row at half-time and got little impact.

It’s not difficult to imagine Erasmus and Nienaber questioning their players’ mentality and desire for the fight.

Eben Etzebeth tells a story of how Nienaber chirped away at the Boks players before their famous win over the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018. The last time the teams had played, the Kiwis had won 57-0, so Nienaber spent the training week telling the players they were 57 points behind the All Blacks. 

“It was like he was picking away at a scab all week,” said Etzebeth, who eventually lost his temper with Nienaber. The Boks coach was delighted to see his angry reaction.

jacques-nienaber Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This week is likely to be similar, with Nienaber and Erasmus showing their players clips of them being splintered by the Lions maul and being dominated in the air. 

We can only expect a big backlash from the Boks, who will hope to be physically better for a game of Saturday’s intensity. It was obvious and understandable that they ran out of puff in the second half after their lack of Test rugby since 2019 and their Covid-related disruption. Whether that side of things improves in a week remains to be seen.

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The Lions have them backed into a corner now, with Gatland and co. determined to seal a series success this weekend. The Boks will fight for their lives.

“We have to salvage it,” said Nienaber on Saturday. “We will look at the video and there are definitely things we can sort out.

“We can sort our mauls out. Obviously, we are confident that we sort the aerial game and the kicking contest. It worked in the first half and gave us good field position.”

The Boks certainly did lots of good things in this game and they were very close to winning. Willie le Roux’s disallowed try really could have stood – it was as marginal an offside call as we have seen for some time – while Hamish Watson should have been sin-binned for his tip tackle on le Roux.

While Nienaber refused the opportunity to criticise referee Nic Berry post-match, it was intriguing to see Erasmus take to Twitter again to point out that “sometimes calls go for you and other times they don’t” alongside footage of a few of the questionable calls.

The Boks’ real frustration will be at their own shortcomings and they need to find answers quickly to keep this Test series alive.

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Murray Kinsella

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