Stephen Ferris: South Africa are now playing catch-up
Before we look at this Saturday’s Test match, let’s rewind the clock back a few days to that unbelievable second-half performance by the Lions that secured a 1-0 lead in the series.
So much hype had surrounded the first Test match between South Africa and the Lions. Everyone had an opinion on how it was going to play out and who eventually would come out on top. However, I think everyone knew one thing for sure, that it was going to be an extremely tight Test match that would be decided by the smallest of margins. And that it was.
The British and Irish Lions found themselves 12-3 down at half time. The boot of Handre Pollard kept the scoreboard ticking over for the Boks, and they were fully committed to a game plan which was to kick the leather off the ball and try to pressurise the Lions into mistakes and give away cheap penalties. The Lions needed to change something at half time before it was too late, or did they just need the Alex Ferguson hairdryer treatment…
Whatever was said at half time had an impact on the game more or less straight away. The Lions winning multiple penalties had the South Africans pinned on their own 5m line defending another Lions onslaught. A good lineout setup with huge power and momentum from the pack saw Luke Cowan-Dickie crash over for the first try of the game. It was now game on.
This Test match was never going to end without a little bit of drama thrown in. A couple of controversial refereeing decisions had the Boks fans seething.
A loose kick by Willie Le Roux fell into Damian De Allende’s hands. A quick pass to Lukhanyo Am looked a little bit forward, but surely it was flat with the momentum both players had generated… Then an awesome bit of skill by Am to drop the ball onto his left foot to nudge it down the line for Le Roux to chase. But was Le Roux in front of the kick? Nic Berry the referee followed the play and awarded the try when Willie Le Roux dived on the ball. After numerous video replays the South African TMO changed the on field call of Try, to a penalty to the Lions where the ball was kicked. What a moment. What a decision by the referees… was it the right one?
The Lions grew into the game more and more and once they got their noses in front they never looked back. Carry after carry from the Boks and then the clock went red. One more mistake and it was game over. Maro Itoje, who was Man of the Match, had the last word in this pulsating game. A grapple tackle ended with Itoje ripping the ball from Rynhardt Elstadt. It was regathered by the Lions and Stuart Hogg kicked the ball into the stands. It was game over. It was now 1-0 to the Lions in the series.
The second Test match kicks off exactly a week later than the first. These two will battle it out once again at 17:00 on Saturday afternoon. Will it be another arm wrestle with excessive kicking from both sides… or could we possibly see a repeat of that second Test match in 2009 when South Africa played their most physical game we have all witnessed for decades? Roll on Saturday, that’s all I can say.
Warren Gatland has brought experience back into his starting 15. Macko Vunipola starts at loose head while Rory Sutherland drops to the bench. Conor Murray starts at scrum and Faletau comes on to the bench instead of Hamish Watson. 3 men who have been there and done it, and Gatland will be leaning on these guys to deliver for him once again. Harris also comes into the starting 15 with Elliot Daly not really impressing last weekend. A last minute 50m penalty from Daly off the bench would not surprise me. Selection is always tough and there will be a number of guys disappointed not to make the team. But they have to stick together and support each other in order to get this job done – a fractious squad off the pitch can translate onto it. However we have not seen any signs of this yet from a Lions perspective. Hopefully this continues.
Should we expect a backlash from the Springboks? Rassie Erasmus and his players will feel that their pride has been dented after that loss. However, they have an opportunity to put things right and level the series up on Saturday afternoon. South Africa lost in the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand in their opening game. We all know what followed in that tournament and the Boks rarely lose back to back games when it really matters.
The momentum is firmly with the Lions. Their squad is relatively healthy and they seem to have the measure of the South Africans. They are also slight favourites with only 1 point in the Handicap betting separating the teams. I honestly thought it would be 3-5 points due to the way the Lions finished the game last weekend, but then again everyone is expecting a reaction from the Boks and that’s maybe why it’s closer than we all had anticipated.
I have to go with the Lions. They seem mentally and physically in a really good place. Their physicality was questioned coming into this series after the defeat to South Africa ‘A’, but that match has been quickly forgotten about. The Lions have the muscle and the brawn to win this series on Saturday. However South Africa might have something to say about that….