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Gatland's Lions overcome half-time deficit in brilliant first Test victory

The Boks led 12-3 at the break but the tourists were outstanding in the second half.

South Africa 17

Lions 22

IT WAS MORE brutal than beautiful but the Lions have landed a massive blow against the Springboks by winning the brilliant first Test of their series in South Africa.

Warren Gatland’s men had to overcome a 12-3 half-time deficit and a worrying first-half performance to eke out this victory, only taking the lead for the first time in the game in the 63rd minute.

cheslin-kolbe-competes-in-the-air-with-robbie-henshaw-and-duhan-van-der-merwe Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Boks, so shy of Test rugby, faded after their dominant performance in the opening 40 minutes as the Lions got on top and squeezed the life out of them. 

There was controversy, as was always likely to the case after South African TMO Marius Jonker was appointed as a late replacement for this Test series, with two possible Boks’ tries ruled out in the second half. More jarring was referee Nic Berry’s decision not to yellow card Lions sub back row Hamish Watson for a dangerous tackle.

But the Lions deserve major credit for the manner in which they imposed a Boks-esque game plan on the hosts. They applied huge pressure with their kicking, won key penalties through their maul, and backed themselves to go to the corner just after half time to produce their only try of the game.

England’s Courtney Lawes was a sensation in the back row, Maro Itoje was inspirational in the second row, while scrum-half Ali Price fully justified his selection with a mature performance at scrum-half. Captain Alun Wyn Jones delivered an 80-minute outing despite his recent lack of game time, while Irishmen Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan were muscular up front.

The Lions’ bench had the far greater impact, with Mako Vunipola excellent after only being included in the 23 at a late stage when Wyn Jones had to withdraw from the starting XV through injury. 

History tells us that the victors of the first Test usually go on to seal the series and the Lions have given themselves a massive opportunity ahead of next weekend’s second Test in Cape Town. That said, there will surely be a stinging Boks backlash.

rassie-erasmus-speaks-to-bongi-mbonambi-and-faf-de-klerk Rassie Erasmus speaks to Bongi Mbonambi. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The brutal opening minutes included a huge hit by Lukhnayo Am on opposite number Elliot Daly and a big counter-ruck turnover from Itoje. Both teams brought ferocity to the breakdown and a strong focus on kicking to build pressure.

Tom Curry had a frustrating opening 18 minutes for the Lions, giving up three penalties for offside, a late tackle on de Klerk, and not rolling away – the second of which Pollard kicked off the tee for a 3-0 Boks lead.

The hosts were able to double the lead four minutes later, soon after a massive turnover tackle by Etzebeth and du Toit on Itoje, with Curry’s third penalty concession allowing Pollard to strike his second successful shot at goal.

The Lions got a moment of respite heading into the second quarter when the Boks were offside in midfield and Biggar kicked a penalty from 40 metres out. 

Gatland’s men soon needed two crucial Itoje breakdown steals to prevent further damage, the second of which came just five metres out from the Lions’ tryline after Kolisi had broken clear from a Boks maul to very nearly surge over for a try.

jack-conan-is-tackled Jack Conan is met by the physical Boks defence. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Lions’ poor discipline continued, however, as Daly gave up two soft penalties in quick succession to allow Pollard to push the lead out to six points, while their lineout was showing worrying signs too as Etzebeth lead the Boks’ onslaught there.

Outstanding defence from the South Africans led to their next three points when du Toit made a superb read and tackle on Robbie Henshaw, allowing Trevor Nyakane to win the breakdown turnover. Pollard was on target for 12-3.

The Lions really should have closed the gap before the break but the last five minutes of the half were a tale of missed chances as Biggar was wide with a very kickable penalty, Daly’s 55-metre effort dropped short, then a rare Lions linebreak ended in error.

On that occasion, sharp Lions handling freed Henshaw for a scything linebreak down the right and up into the Boks 22, but the retreating Wille le Roux cleverly dislodged the ball as the Ireland centre carried it in one hand.

The Boks finished the half with a scrum penalty to highlight another area in which they just about had the first-half edge.

robbie-henshaw-loses-the-ball-as-he-is-tackled-by-willie-le-roux Robbie Henshaw loses the ball forward. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Lions had a dream start to the second half as they caused confusion in the Boks backfield with a hanging Price kick, Kwagga Smith getting penalised for not releasing the ball on the ground after he fielded it. 

The Lions kicked down into the Boks’ 22 and won another penalty for Etzebeth’s high tackle on Henshaw. With an easy three points on offer, Lions captain Jones instead opted to go into the corner and the decision paid off to the tune of seven points as the tourists’ pack marched over for a Luke Cowan-Dickie maul try converted by Biggar.

The Boks nearly produced an instant response as Damian de Allende gathered a loose ball underneath another kick and offload to Am along the left touchline. Am nudged the ball ahead for le Roux to seemingly score but referee Berry went to South Africa TMO Marius Jonker to review.

Berry’s on-field decision was a try but Jonker felt there was enough evidence to say that le Roux had just been ahead of Am as he kicked the ball. No try. 

But the Boks were undeterred by that disappointment and they instead created another try that needed a TMO check. It started with a wild loose pass from Pollard that du Toit had to retreat downfield to gather before he threw a lovely dummy, broke, and passed to wing Makazole Mapimpi, who chipped in behind.

the-british-irish-lions-celebrate-after-luke-cowan-dickie-scores-a-try-from-the-maul The Lions celebrate Luke Cowan-Dickie's try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Du Toit stopped to collect the bouncing ball but couldn’t quite gather it this time as it rebounded down off his leg and fell for the hard-working Faf de Klerk to scoop up and score. Jonker had another big TMO review but was happy this time and the try stood.

Pollard was wide with the conversion, however, and the Lions narrowed the Boks’ lead to four points soon after as Biggar slotted another penalty in the 53rd minute.

The Lions’ attack was growing more effective by the minute and a big break from Lawes eventually led on to another penalty for offside from the Boks, allowing Biggar to make it a one-point game at 17-16. 

With Price’s box-kicking a weapon, the Lions suddenly had hold of the momentum and they finally had the lead of the game in the 63rd minute as Biggar nailed a penalty shot following a maul penalty against the Boks.

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The Lions appeared to have a lucky escape when replacement openside Hamish Watson tipped le Roux above the horizontal in an aggressive tackle, Berry deciding it was a penalty only and then Pollard missing his shot at goal.

dan-biggar-takes-a-kick Dan Biggar edges the Lions in front. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Lions lost Biggar to a head injury assessment with 13 minutes left to play but they instantly produced a massive scrum penalty through sub front row Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens, and Kyle Sinckler to allow them to lift pressure in their own half. 

TMO Jonker was called back into action in the 72nd minute as the Boks pounced on yet another loose ball under a kick and thought they had scored after the Lions juggled it under pressure, but the review was clear this time – Cheslin Kolbe had knocked on as he contested de Klerk’s kick.

Replacement Farrell was soon able to give the Lions a but more breathing room as he slotted a penalty after more superb Lions maul work and Gatland’s men saw it out from there.

South Africa scorers:

Tries: Faf de Klerk

Conversions: Handré Pollard [0 from 1]

Penalties: Handré Pollard [4 from 5]

Lions scorers:

Tries: Luke Cowan-Dickie

Conversions: Dan Biggar [1 from 1]

Penalties: Dan Biggar [4 from 5], Elliot Daly [0 from 1], Owen Farrell [1 from 1]

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux  (Damian Willemse ’67); Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard (Elton Jantjies ’71), Faf de Klerk (Herschel Jantjies ’73) ; Ox Nché (Steven Kitshoff ’40), Bongi Mbonambi (Malcolm Marx ’40), Trevor Nyakane (Frans Malherbe ’40); Eben Etzebeth , Franco Mostert (Lood de Jager ’64); Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith  (Rynhardt Elstadt ’64).

LIONS: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly (Owen Farrell ’66), Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe (Liam Williams ’70); Dan Biggar (HIA ’67), Elliot Daly, Ali Price (Conor Murray ’64); Rory Sutherland (Mako Vunipola ’56), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Ken Owens ’56), Tadhg Furlong (Kyle Sinckler ’66); Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Courtney Lawes (Tadhg Beirne ’73), Tom Curry (Hamish Watson ’56), Jack Conan.

Referee: Nic Berry [Rugby Australia].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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