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BOD and Roberts' brilliance, The Beast's scrum power, and a narrow Boks win

The Lions very nearly produced a comeback victory against South Africa in their first Test in 2009.

THE PREVIOUS TIME the Lions had come to South Africa, back in 1997, they had left with a famous series success.

In 2009, Peter de Villiers’ Springboks vowed it was going to be different.

With their World Cup success less than two years before, the Boks possessed a superb team that included legendary players like Fourie du Preez, John Smit, and Victor Matfield.

paul-oconnell-and-alun-wyn-jones-after-the-game Lions captain Paul O'Connell after the first Test in Durban in 2009. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ian McGeechan’s Lions warmed up for the Test series with six wins from six games, although they lost a key player in Stephen Ferris through injury along the way. 

Here’s how McGeechan and his coaching staff, including Warren Gatland, selected for the first Test at sea level in Durban.

LIONS: Lee Byrne; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Ugo Monye; Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery; Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell (captain); Tom Croft, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Donncha O’Callaghan, Martyn Williams, Harry Ellis, Ronan O’Gara, Rob Kearney.

The Boks lined out as follows.

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; Heinrich Brussow, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies.

Replacements: Gurthrö Steenkamp, Deon Carstens, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Ricky Januarie, Jacque Fourie, Morné Steyn.

Unfortunately for McGeechan and co., the Lions’ start in Durban was disastrous.

Out-half Stephen Jones missed with a third-minute penalty shot from the left touchline and then the Lions botched their first lineout as Lee Mears overthrew Tom Croft.

From that turnover, Boks out-half Ruan Pienaar began what would be a collective masterclass of kicking from hand to pressure the Lions, leading to a five-metre scrum for the home side. On third phase, captain John Smit crashed over.

The Boks’ game plan was built around earning close-range set-piece chances and they took this opportunity in clinical fashion as Pienaar and openside Juan Smith carried, with grizzled lock Bakkies Botha showing his aggressive edge with a forearm into Brian O’Driscoll’s throat as he cleared out…

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Two swift recycles by the Boks deliver lightning-quick ball for du Preez and he finds tighthead prop Smit thundering around the corner from the initial scrum.

As du Preez lifts the ball to pass, we can see that the Lions are bunched tight to the ruck, the speed of the ball leaving them condensed…

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Timing his run superbly, Smit arrives around the corner with the Lions defence disorganised.

Inside centre Jamie Roberts [red arrow below] is concerned about Boks hooker Bismarck du Plessis, who has swung around the corner outside Smith. Meanwhile, Lions left wing Ugo Monye [yellow] has swept behind the defence and is closing up to Roberts’ outside shoulder.

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Croft [white above] is trying to chase across from that initially narrow position but he can’t get in front of Smit and the Boks captain barges over.

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Just six minutes in and the Lions find themselves 7-0 down.

They very nearly respond instantly as Boks fullback Frans Steyn drops the restart to give the Lions a midfield scrum.

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It’s a sharp play from the Lions, with scrum-half Mike Phillips [white below] darting right to draw off opposite number du Preez [red] and keep fullback Frans Steyn on that side too.

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Number eight Jamie Heaslip passes left to Jones instead and then O’Driscoll – having switched positions with Roberts, as they frequently did on this tour – skips the decoy-running centre to Monye wide on the left.

The Lions wing tucks the ball on his right side, rather than transferring it to his outside hand and freeing himself to fend JP Pietersen.

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Having initially been held by Roberts’ decoy run, Pietersen is scrambling back and his high tackle would almost certainly draw a penalty try in the current game. Rugby was different back in 2009, though.

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Pietersen’s tackle is not even discussed in the bizarre television match official review that follows as referee Bryce Lawrence struggles to understand TMO Christophe Berdos, eventually over-ruling the Frenchman’s suggestion.

The final decision is that Monye carries the ball over the tryline but doesn’t ground it before Jean de Villiers sweeps in, strips it from him and out over the touch-in-goal line.

Struggling to make himself understood, Berdos recommends a Lions scrum five metres out but Lawrence awards the Boks a 22-metre drop-out.

Two minutes later, the South Africans win a momentum-lifting scrum penalty down the other end as Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira’s domination of Phil Vickery begins.

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The Lions give up three scrum penalties in this game, contributing to a damaging total of 12 penalties conceded.

While the Lions soon show more spark in attack as openside David Wallace cuts through from Mears’ short pass in midfield, they can’t find the final breakthrough, with out-half Jones missing a kickable penalty in the 16th minute.

Another botched Lions lineout follows and the scrum dominance continues for the Boks, with a moment of poor discipline from Croft – shoulder charging du Preez – allowing fullback Steyn to fire over three points from wide on the right for a 13-0 Boks lead on the 20-minute mark.

The Lions finally get a foothold in the game thereafter and it’s little surprise that Roberts and O’Driscoll’s midfield combination delivers it.

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With Jones shaping to run a loop line [white below] after passing to Roberts, Boks outside centre Adrian Jacobs [red] drifts off Roberts.

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Expecting Jacobs to mark up on Roberts, Boks openside Smith [yellow] is a little slow to hunt across on the inside and the Lions’ inside centre doesn’t need a second invitation, accelerating into the gap and hanging up an offload to O’Driscoll, who perfectly slaloms inside Bryan Habana and back out to provide the option for Roberts.

In behind the defence, O’Driscoll assesses his options with characteristic speed. 

He recognises that Habana [yellow below] is tracking back in the passing channel towards Lions fullback Lee Byrne on his outside, while Steyn and Pietersen [red] are in the backfield.

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Instead of attempting to pass to his right – where Habana’s pace might allow him to intercept – O’Driscoll swerves back infield against the grain of Pietersen sweeping across for the Boks.

O’Driscoll is able to to get to the inside shoulder of Pietersen and link with Croft [white above], who has started this phase at the ruck and intelligently worked upfield.

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It’s a classy Lions try that underlines their attacking quality, particularly through the brilliant midfield pairing of Roberts and O’Driscoll.

McGeechan’s men are in the game now but the scrum pain continues as ‘The Beast’ wins another penalty against Vickery, allowing Pienaar to nudge the Boks 16-7 ahead .

While the Lions’ attack impresses – they end the game with four linebreaks to the South Africans’ zero, as well as 15 offloads to the home side’s two – the Boks’ set-piece dominance and kicking quality continue to apply pressure, with Tommy Bowe turned over in the Lions 22 after more of the latter.

The accurate Pienaar is on target again with the penalty for 19-7, although he misses his final shot at goal of the half after Vickery is pinged once again at scrum time.

While the Lions send on Adam Jones at tighthead early in the second half, the Boks continue to flex their muscle up front as their maul makes a telling impact.

The home team march the tourists almost 30 metres downfield from an initial lineout in their own half, earning a penalty along the way as O’Connell comes in the side. 

The Boks kick up to the 22, where Alun Wyn Jones collapses the next maul. The hosts then go into the left corner and surge over for their second try. 

Maul

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While several of the Boks’ backs join in to help flanker Heinrich Brussouw to put the finishing touch to it, the score represents huge disappointment for the Lions pack as they are essentially mauled 60 metres downfield over the course of three mauls.

With Pienaar converting, the Boks have a dominant 26-7 lead and the Lions are staring down the barrel of a drubbing.

More combined quality from O’Driscoll and Roberts offers them a chance to reply…

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Again, it’s a clever scrum play from the Lions as Heaslip first pops to Phillips.

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Out-half Jones runs across the face of Roberts and O’Driscoll to drag Boks 13 Jacobs wide, then Phillips threads his pass in front of Roberts – who sits down de Villiers – to O’Driscoll running into a sliver of space. Again, O’Driscoll and Roberts connect in behind the defence.

The Lions flood forward and the passage very nearly ends with the superb Phillips stretching out to score, only for Botha to get a crucial hand in.

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Bowe is the next one to threaten, breaking off a short Phillips pass, and ensuring a five-metre Lions scrum but Laurence then penalises the tourists after replacement hooker Matthew Rees swings an arm at Habana in frustration off the ball.

With Rob Kearney making an impression at fullback, having replaced Byrne in the first half, the Boks let the foot off the gas heading into the final quarter as head coach de Villiers makes several changes, including replacing Smit and Pienaar. 

The Lions sense an opportunity and go at their hosts, with Roberts and O’Driscoll once again influential as McGeechan’s men close the gap.

A strong carry from Roberts brings the Lions close before O’Driscoll provides the assist for Croft’s second try.

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It’s simple and effective playmaking from O’Driscoll against the tiring Boks defence as he darts diagonally to lure Victor Matfield [red below] into turning his shoulders in, accentuating the space outside him for Croft to run into.

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With 12 minutes left, the Lions trail 26-14.

The 72nd minute sees the Lions once again come within inches of scoring as their attacking play continues to stretch the Boks to breaking point.

This time, excellent passing from Jones, O’Driscoll and Roberts allows Kearney to find Monye in space on the left, where he beats Frans Steyn but then loses the ball over the line.

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Having done well to step back inside Frans Steyn, Monye looks certain to score, but debutant out-half Morné Steyn – who has replaced Pienaar – manages to track across and target the ball in a despairing final tackle.

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It’s a wonderful bit of defending but the Lions are left exasperated when a try with eight minutes left might have given them time to complete a remarkable comeback.

As it is, Phillips forces a knock-on from Boks number eight Pierre Spies at the back of the ensuing scrum and then the Welshman finishes the Lions’ third try.

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There’s some characteristic work ahead of the ball from Heaslip for this score, as the Lions number eight gets up off the ground from the previous ruck and steps into Matfield as the Boks lock moves to tackle Phillips.

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Heaslip’s work ahead of the ball helps to open up the space for Phillips to dummy and dart over for a try that leaves the Lions trailing just 26-21 with five minutes of the contest remaining.

The Boks appear to be rattled as replacement scrum-half Ricky Januarie knocks on what should be a simple catch in the backfield, with the Lions nearly breaking through from the scrum.

Roberts once again thrusts forward and comes close to linking to Bowe running into space on his outside shoulder but Boks replacement centre Jacque Fourie just manages to get a hand in.

Still the Lions get an opportunity as O’Driscoll wins a penalty for being taken out off the ball. Jones’ touchfinder is poor but the Lions have a lineout on the 22, only for their lineout troubles to emerge once again as Matfield makes a vital steal at the tail.

With hearts in mouths, the Boks manage to knock-on Matfield’s steal and the Lions have one very last chance with just over a minute left.

But their bid for a comeback victory ends with Laurence awarding a turnover penalty to Gurthrö Steenkamp.

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With the Boks looking mightily relieved with their 26-21 victory, the series heads for what will prove to a compelling and brutal second Test in Pretoria.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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