The brutal and bloody second Lions Test in South Africa in 2009

The Springboks claimed series success in dramatic circumstances in Pretoria.

DESPITE A DEFEAT, the Lions came into the second Test against the Springboks in 2009 buoyed by their late rally in the opening clash.

The Lions had come up short on a 26-21 scoreline but shown their ability to cut the South Africans apart in attack.

Having played the first Test at sea level in Durban, the teams were at altitude in Pretoria for the second encounter – one that is cited as being among the best Lions Tests ever.

ronan-ogara-after-the-game A battered Ronan O'Gara after the second Test in Pretoria. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Lions boss Ian McGeechan made five changes to his starting team, with Rob Kearney replacing the injured Lee Byrne at fullback after an impressive performance off the bench in the first Test. 

The Lions had an all-Irish back three as 21-year-old Luke Fitzgerald was picked in place of Ugo Monye on the left wing.

Wales’ Adam Jones came in at tighthead for Phil Vickery after he had a harrowing outing at scrum time in Durban, while 35-year-old Simon Shaw replaced Alun Wyn Jones in the second row. Finally, Matthew Rees started at hooker ahead of Lee Mears.

LIONS: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Luke Fitzgerald; Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones; Simon Shaw, Paul O’Connell (captain); Tom Croft, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Ross Ford, Andrew Sheridan, Alun Wyn Jones, Martyn Williams, Harry Ellis, Ronan O’Gara, Shane Williams.

The Boks, meanwhile, brought Schalk Burger in for Heinrich Brussow in the only change to their starting XV, while opting for a 5/2 bench split as starting out-half Ruan Pienaar also covered scrum-half.

SOUTH AFRICA: Frans Steyn; JP Pietersen, Adrian Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana; Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez; Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit; Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield; Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies.

Replacements: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Deon Carstens, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Heinrich Brussow, Jacque Fourie, Morné Steyn.

What followed was a brutal and bloody encounter. 

The Boks really should have had a red card just 20 seconds into the game as the returning Burger, winning his 50th cap, made clear contact with the eye area of Fitzgerald.


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Assistant referee Bryce Laurence is the one to spot the incident and he tells referee Christophe Berdos that he has clearly seen “fingers in the eye area,” at which point Berdos begins to move away to award a penalty.

Laurence stops him and stresses again “eyes,” to which Berdos responds, “Eyes? Yellow card?”

Laurence says, “I think it’s at least a yellow card” and Berdos moves infield to speak to Burger.

It’s worth remembering that in 2009, the television match official [TMO] was not free to come in on foul play decisions or to flag foul play with the referee. It seems bizarre now, but that was the reality back then, with TMOs only called on for try decisions.

In this case, Berdos calls Burger over and tells him, “You put your finger, I don’t know exactly, on the eyes, it’s dangerous. No, no, deliberate, yellow card.”


With Burger subsequently banned for eight weeks, the Lions were within their rights to feel aggrieved at this being only a yellow.

While they felt it should have been red, the Lions did take advantage of Burger’s sin-bin period, scoring 10 points. Out-half Jones slotted a penalty before the confident-looking Lions made breaks through Kearney and Tommy Bowe.

Amidst a feral atmosphere at Loftus Versfeld, tempers were high as Brian O’Driscoll and Victor Matfield clashed off the ball.


Pressing home their numerical advantage, the Lions scored an excellent opening try in the seventh minute, striking wide on the right following strong carries by Jamie Roberts and second row Shaw from a lineout platform.

Out-half Jones showed wonderful skill to free Kearney down the right.


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The Lions’ speed around the corner beats the 14-men Boks and leaves Jones in a 3-on-2 situation we can see below as Rees offers him an option inside.


Dummying inside initially, Jones accentuates the quality of the opportunity by carrying at Adrian Jacobs but keeping the ball free in his right hand.

Boks left wing Bryan Habana is drawn in towards the contact as Jacobs tackles Jones…


… allowing Jones to flick a surprise one-handed offload across the face of Habana to Kearney in space.

The fact that it’s Kearney making the break, rather than Bowe in a simple catch-pass 3-on-2, proves important as the Lions fullback has support on his outside to worry opposite number Frans Steyn.

That means Steyn [white below] has to sit off Kearney, concerned about final attacker Bowe.


With the ball in two hands, Kearney dummies a pass to Bowe to ensure Steyn continues to sit off, while Boks right wing JP Pietersen [red above] is attempting to cover across from the right.

Kearney buys himself just enough time to finish, darting inside Steyn and under Pietersen’s tackle. Jones’ excellent conversion leaves the Lions 10-0 up just eight minutes in.

The Boks win a turnover penalty through hooker Bismarck du Plessis in the final minute of Burger’s yellow card window, meaning he returns for an attacking lineout. 

Damagingly, the Lions concede in the seconds after Burger has returned.


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Opting against using a ‘tailgunner’ behind the lineout, the Lions instead put openside flanker David Wallace [red below] into the backline defence.


Boks scrum-half Fourie du Preez [white below] arcs away from the back of the lineout and runs at Wallace’s inside shoulder.

We can see that Tom Croft is attempting to get across from the back of the Lions lineout but Wallace [red] is concerned about du Preez’s breaking threat and turns in to tackle him.


Pietersen [blue above] is running a short line outside du Preez into the space on Wallace’s outside shoulder.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Luke Fitzgerald [yellow], is the next defender in the Lions’ defence but rather than echoing Wallace’s decision to ‘jam in,’ he is concerned about Boks centre Jean de Villiers in front of him.

Ian McGeechan wrote in his book ‘Lion Man’ that Fitzgerald’s “assignment” in this instance had been to deal with Pietersen, while the former Ireland wing revealed on his podcast in 2017 that defence coach Shaun Edwards “cut me in half” for the error.

Pietersen bursts into clear space and rounds Kearney, who has initially set up to the Lions’ right. Remarkably, Ruan Pienaar misses the conversion to leave the Boks trailing 10-5.

With Mike Phillips impressing again, the Lions’ enterprising attack soon earned another penalty that Jones kicked for an eight-point lead before tighthead Jones showed his scrummaging prowess by winning a huge penalty five metres out from the Lions’ tryline.


The turnaround in the scrum from the first Test, when Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira had dominated Phil Vickery, was uplifting for the Lions.

Steyn missed a long-range penalty attempt in between the Lions wasting some promising attacking situations with sloppy execution, while the outstanding Kearney missed with a drop-goal effort from just inside his own half.

As in the first Test, McGeechan’s men continued to be the more threatening with ball in hand, including with this sharp break down the left in the 34th minute.


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O’Driscoll’s catch-pass releases Fitzgerald and we can see two tugs on the jerseys of O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip further inside as they set off in support.

Fitzgerald gets his pass away but the Boks manage to scramble back. Still, the Lions keep the pressure on and Jones pops over a drop-goal to reward the initial break.

A penalty against the Lions for obstruction allows Steyn to blast over a 43-metre three-pointer on the store of half-time and the tourist hold a 16-8 advantage that should have been more at the break.

The opening minutes of the second half were as brutal as what had preceded, and the Lions’ injury toll started to mount.

First, loosehead Gethin Jenkins, who had already taken a blow to the head in the first half – departing to the blood bin – was involved in a big head-on-head collision with O’Driscoll.


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Jenkins fractured his cheekbone in this collision, ending his tour, although O’Driscoll played on as the game flowed into the Lions’ half.

Remarkably, in this same passage of play, Lions tightead Jones was also injured as Bakkies Both connected with him at a ruck, also ending Jones’ tour.


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This hit from Botha was cited after the game and earned him a two-week ban, which the Boks vehemently disagreed with, going as far as to wear ‘Justice 4′ armbands in the third Test as a protest [4 being Botha's jersey number]. That protest later earned the Boks fines of more than £10,000.

The damage for the Lions, losing both props in the same passage, was telling.

With only seven players on the bench back in 2009, the Lions had one replacement prop in Andrew Sheridan and the departure of Jenkins and Jones meant a shift to uncontested scrums.


That took away what was looking like a Lions strength and arguably freed up the Boks forwards’ energy around the pitch, which appeared to tell in the closing quarter. That said, the Lions did get a third lock onto the pitch in the shape of Alun Wyn Jones.

Pienaar surprisingly missed 49th-minute and 53rd-minute shots at goal in what was now a kick-heavy contest, the Lions seeming increasingly content to kick their possession away. 

The supreme Roberts did threaten in midfield but the Boks looked far more content with the kick battle. Nonetheless, Jones landed a superb penalty from the right as the game entered the final quarter, leaving the Lions 19-8 in front with just 20 minutes remaining. 

But the brutal nature of the contest came to the fore again, as O’Driscoll and Boks replacement back row Danie Rossouw collided.


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Whatever about O’Driscoll looking offside, his head-on-head high tackle on Rossouw would likely draw a serious sanction in today’s game.

In 2009, referee Berdos deemed it ‘play on’.

The head collision forces Russouw off as he struggles to find his balance but, incredibly, O’Driscoll stays on after being checked by the Lions’ medical team following his second big head-on-head contact.

That O’Driscoll is not removed from the pitch proves damaging for the Lions’ chances of winning, with the Ireland centre making a totally uncharacteristic error in his next involvement – just after the Lions throw crooked into a lineout to give the Boks a scrum.


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Similarly to the first Boks try, du Preez arcs away from the base of the Boks’ set-piece, the uncontested scrum, meaning Lions out-half Jones has to match up on him [red below].


Outside, Roberts has to respect the hard running line of Boks centre Jaque Fourie [white], meaning O’Driscoll’s role is to close up and in on blindside wing Habana [yellow] as du Preez pulls the pass behind Fourie.

It’s the kind of defensive duty that O’Driscoll was superb at throughout his career but – looking understandably dazed – he misreads the situation and Habana bursts through, showing his pace to finish in between Bowe and Kearney.

Having just replaced Pienaar, Morné Steyn adds the conversion and the Boks are back to within four points at 19-15 with 17 minutes left. 

O’Driscoll is immediately replaced by Wales wing Shane Williams and two minutes later, Roberts is also forced off with a wrist injury, meaning Ireland’s Ronan O’Gara comes on.

The major reshuffle sees O’Gara on at out-half, Jones moving to inside centre, and Bowe to outside centre.

With the effects of the altitude in Pretoria and the physical toll of the contest seeming to kick-in for the Lions, the Boks sense their opportunity. 

Steyn, winning his second cap, calmly nails a 43-metre penalty to leave the hosts a point behind.


The Lions send on Martyn Williams in place of David Wallace just before a strong carry from Bowe in midfield leads to Burger coming blatantly offside and allowing the tourists to re-open the four-point gap with 10 minutes left.

But the Boks, enhanced by the bench impact of Steyn, Fourie, flanker Heinrich Brussouw, and lock Andries Bekker, have come to life. 

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A big carry from number eight Pierre Spies leaves O’Gara dazed on the ground, clutching his head with what appears to be another concussion.


O’Gara – who later told the Irish Times that “I was knocked out and didn’t really know what I was doing” – stumbles back to his feet and moves to fill a position in the defensive line but, unfortunately for him, the Boks manage to create an overlap wide to their right and he is called on to cover across, where he misses his tackle on Fourie.


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Having shown relatively little in terms of passing in attack in the series, it is excellent play from the Boks, but disappointing defence from the Lions’ point of view. 

A slow fold from the short side initially leaves them exposed wide on their left and then O’Gara – surely still dazed – misses his tackle on the much stronger Fourie.

Any missed tackle is a bad one, of course, but the Lions will still have been frustrated not to stop Fourie even after he bumped off O’Gara.


As we can see above, Fourie is still five metres out as Phillips engages into the tackle on him, while Bowe has worked hard to cover across in the backfield to provide cover in behind.

To his credit, Fourie continues to drive forward for what is a superb finish but Bowe just hesitates in engaging as Phillips’ tackle slips down onto the Boks centre’s legs.

That momentary hesitation gives Fourie just a sliver of space to finish in the right corner, with TMO Stuart Dickinson called on by Berdos to examine the possible score. None of the angles examined showed clear evidence of Fourie being in touch.

The score stood and the composed Steyn nailed his touchline conversion to send the Boks into the lead for the first time in the game at 25-22 with just over five minutes left.

O’Gara was spilt open over his left eye in the process of trying to stop Fourie, requiring bandaging to stop the blood, but he remained on the pitch despite the earlier blow to the head.

And still there was time for more drama.

O’Gara’s pass put Jones into space down the left, drawing a high tackle from Bekker. Penalty chance for the Lions, and with exactly 77:00 on the clock, Jones’ shot sails through the uprights.


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With the teams tied at 25-25, the decibel levels reach new heights in Pretoria.

The Boks counter off a clearing kick by Phillips, bursting into the Lions’ half and building towards a drop-goal attempt for out-half Steyn.

But Lions number eight Heaslip, who had a superb game, finds the energy to race forward looking for a blockdown, causing Steyn to scuff his effort.

Lions fullback Kearney blasts his clearance into the Boks 22, where Steyn covers back and responds in kind, sending the ball deep into the Lions’ 22.

With 79:25 on the lock, O’Gara gathers the ball, assesses his options and decides to launch a contestable kick.


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O’Gara’s decision is one that will be debated for years to come. 

McGeechan writes in his book at that it was “the wrong choice. He should have kicked as long as he could to pin them back.”

O’Gara said that the decision “doesn’t cost me a second thought because I’d do the exact same tomorrow. People ask me would you not kick it out but it never entered my head to kick the ball out. I couldn’t see what a draw would do for anyone.”

A ferocious competitor, O’Gara decided that looking to win the ball back was the Lions’ best option with time still left. 

Whatever about the decision, the execution that followed was poor. Most decisions can be made the right one if they’re carried out well. In this case, the Lions give the Boks a chance to win the game.


As we can see above, O’Gara calls on Bowe to chase his contestable kick. Bowe is obviously far better in the air than the out-half, so it would seem sensible for him to be the one to compete.

But as O’Gara launches the ball into the air, Bowe instead drifts off towards the left wing…


… meaning that O’Gara, certainly not renowned for his ability in the air, is left chasing his own kick with a hint of desperation.

While O’Gara never takes his eyes off the ball, he doesn’t get off the ground and his collision into du Preez is clearly dangerous, completely taking out the Boks scrum-half out in the air.


It’s a fairly clear decision for referee Berdos, who is close to the incident, and the Boks get their chance to claim the series with the final kick of the second Test.

With the clock already in the red, Steyn lines up his shot from inside his own half.


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The 24-year-old Blue Bulls out-half, winning just his second cap, holds his nerve to send the Springboks’ fans into ecstasy as they celebrate revenge for the Lions’ 1997 series success on South African soil.

McGeechan’s Lions, meanwhile, feel the devastation at missing their opportunity to send the 2009 series into the final Test with all to play for.

The crippling injuries didn’t help and Burger should have been red-carded, of course, but while the focus will naturally be on the endgame, the Lions’ failure to make their first-half dominance count to a greater extent, as well as their failure to play more in the third quarter, should rankle just as much.

Meanwhile, the Boks deserve plaudits for clinically exploiting opportunities with their set-piece tries and skilfully creating the chance for Fourie’s fine finish. Steyn made his name by showing real bottle off the tee.

For the rest of us, the battle in Pretoria will go down as one of the great Test matches.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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