South Africa A’s victory shows British & Irish Lions the size of their task
At least the British & Irish Lions now know exactly where they stand after the first defeat of their 2021 expedition. Here was a bruising reminder of the size of the challenge awaiting them once the series proper commences in this same stadium in a little over a week from now, with barely any time left in which to conjure some miracle solutions.
If this really was the ‘fourth Test’ it would be hard, on this evidence, to bet against the team in green winning at least two of the remaining three. Of course the Lions do not want to reveal all their tactical cards at this juncture but there is every chance the Springboks – operating under a subtly different moniker on this occasion – will be the better for this run-out following a severely Covid-impacted build-up.
The big plusses for the Lions were in the front row where Wyn Jones and Kyle Sinckler both performed manfully, with Tom Curry and Josh Navidi also tirelessly busy in the back row. Less conspicuous was any consistent snap and crackle at half-back where Conor Murray and Owen Farrell found it hard to inject much tempo on a night which underlined just what a tough defensive nut the Springboks will be to crack this month.
The Lions, never less than spirited and brave, will just have to hope the same applies to them. Disruption has been a constant companion on this tour and there was more of it prior to kick-off when Josh Adams’s partner Georgia went into labour. The Wales wing, earning himself an instant footnote in Lions folklore in the process, pulled out of this game due to attend the birth via Zoom, with Anthony Watson switching to the wing and Liam Williams entering the equation at full-back.
With Dan Biggar also dropping out with a minor ankle strain, giving Farrell an unexpected start at 10, the Lions could conceivably have used unfamiliarity as an excuse had their opponents not already claimed that for themselves. Apart from a solitary Test against Georgia, South Africa’s finest have not played together since winning the World Cup in Japan in late 2019.
Some things, however, never change. The sheer power of the not-so-disguised Boks with and without the ball was still firmly intact and the first quarter was comfortably the most sobering 20 minutes of the tour. Only a fine cover tackle from Watson denied Sbu Nkosi a try in the left corner but, with advantage being played, the South Africans still came away with three points from a Morne Steyn penalty.
After 12 minutes the margin was already into double figures, Farrell’s attempted kick being charged down by Eben Etzebeth before Damian de Allende put Nkosi away for a gliding long-range score. Worse was to follow, a pained-looking Williams limping off shortly afterwards to be replaced by Elliot Daly.
The more encouraging news was that the Lions scrum was holding firm, with Jones particularly enhancing his Test starting prospects on the loosehead. A Farrell penalty narrowed the gap slightly but it was only a temporary reprieve. After 32 minutes a slightly loose clearance from Daly fell to Cheslin Kolbe who shimmied assuredly between Louis Rees-Zammit and Chris Harris and put his captain, Lukhanyo Am, away for a brilliant try, expertly converted by the metronomic Steyn.
At 17-3 down the Lions urgently needed a slice of luck and duly received some when Faf de Klerk was shown a yellow card for a reckless headlong tackle which only involved, at best, one of his arms. Then, a minute before half-time, the home side were further depleted when a string of collective team offences ended with Marco van Staden following his scrum-half to the sin-bin.
Despite a two-man advantage the Lions could not quite force Jones over from close-range before the interval but the same player had more success within four minutes of the restart before departing, slightly ominously, having received a blow somewhere around the collarbone area. Another Farrell penalty narrowed the deficit further but by now the South Africans were back to full strength and after a stretching Rees-Zammit was fractionally short of scoring in the left corner towards the end of the final quarter the pendulum swung back in favour of the local green giants.
At least there are Lions reinforcements at hand, with the Irish hooker Rónan Kelleher coming out as cover along with the returning Alun Wyn Jones, whom Warren Gatland is likely to restore as his skipper ahead of Murray assuming the lock’s shoulder stands up to his first few days’ training in South Africa. “There’s a good chance that Alun Wyn will resume as tour captain and I think Conor will be pretty happy with that,” said Gatland. “We’ll just make the best decision for the squad.” If Alun Wyn Jones not only miraculously returns but leads his pride of Lions to series victory, it will rank among the great comebacks of the age.