It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week since the Lions emerged victorious in the 1ˢᵗ Test against the Springboks, what with all the talk about last weeks officiating and the mystery of Jaco Johan’s true identity, but here we are 7 days later with the Lions and Springboks facing off in the second of three Tests.
And after a week where things arguably got out of control and went too far, it’s no surprise that we saw a cagey start to the game, with the first of a number of tussles coming just minutes into the game. The hosts took an early lead through the boot of Handré Pollard but Dan Biggar soon kicked 2 penalties to put the tourists ahead, with Pollard missing jus before the end of the 1ˢᵗ quarter. Any hopes that the officials would have an easy night soon went out the window, and when Duhan van der Merwe tripped Cheslin Kolbe early in the 2ⁿᵈ quarter. Any hopes the Springboks had of exploiting the extra man disappeared within a minute though, as Cheslin Kolbe’s reckless kick chase saw him take out Conor Murray in the air, with the winger probably lucky to only get a yellow. Despite the extra space on the pitch, neither could find a breakthrough, though Pollard kicked another conversion to bring things level. As the half began drawing towards an eventual (the 40 minutes of game time took over an hour to play out) end, the Lions thought they had scored the opening try as Robbie Henshaw collected Conor Murray’s clever chip on the try line, however the combined efforts of Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am held him up in goal just long enough for the host’s captain to strip the ball free, and the Lions were forced to settle for a penalty, which sent them into the break with a 6-9 lead.
The second half last week saw an immediate shift into a higher gear from the Lions, but this time it was the South Africans who came flying out the blocks, and after the Lions failed to claim a high ball in their 22, the South Africans pulled the defence around, before Pollard put in a clever chip to the corner, which Makazole Mapimpi collected to go over for the opening try. The Boks were clearly not going to roll over and hand the Lions the series, and after Dan Biggar saw a penalty attempt come back off the post, some clever substitutions saw them begin to take control. That control paid off just after the hour as a dominant maul drove covered far too much distance before being brought down illegally, and with a penalty advantage given, Faf de Klerk put in a clever grubber from the back of the breakdown, which Lukhanyo Am managed to touch down. With Pollard adding the conversion to take the score beyond a converted try with just 10 minutes left, it looked like the game was done, but the South Africans made sure of it with some dominant play from their pack winning them 3 penalties that Pollard duly kicked for a 27-9 victory that levelled the series 1-1.
The Springboks were poor last week. Considering how little time they have spent together since the World Cup and how badly their preparation for the series had been affected by COVID, anyone with a brain could have expected that they would get better as the series went on. Yet despite that, the Lions chose to stick to a gameplan that saw them try to win the game at the set piece and rely on keeping the ball tight and beating the Boks in the air.
Well that failed miserably, especially as the second half went on, with Ken Owens seemingly thinking that his team were wearing green at the lineouts and Kyle Sinckler getting taught a lesson in scrummaging by Trevor Nyakane, who looked miles better than in recent outings. Meanwhile, though they may have had the height advantage, it looked like the Lions back 3 had all-but forgotten how to play under the high ball. The Lions tried to beat the Boks at their own game… and were handily beaten.
“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same f*cking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy.”
—Vaas, Far Cry 3
Warren Gatland has never been a coach that I have fully got behind. While I have appreciated how physically fit his teams are, he so often appears to just have 1 plan: going hard in midfield and relying on the quality of his players under the high ball and in the set piece to dominate the game, eventually creating the space out wide for his wings to exploit. However, when that doesn’t work, he so rarely seems to have a Plan B, and that showed horribly in this match.
If the Lions want to come away with the win next week, they need to take a different approach. As great as Chris Harris was today, I think that Robbie Henshaw needs to be moved out to 13 next week, with Owen Farrell coming in at 12 to provide a second playmaking option to play a more open game and move the South African defence around the pitch, with Tadhg Beirne also coming in at 6 in place of Courtney Lawes to provide a more threatening attacking option along with another breakdown threat for the Boks to deal with. Ali Price should be reinstated to the starting line-up as he will provide more variety to the game than Conor Murray, while Liam Williams and Josh Adams should be brought into the back 3.
If they stick to more for the same next week, it could be a long 80 minutes for Lions fans.
Stroke of genius
Sometimes when you look back at a match, it is possible to pick out a handful of moments that proved crucial to the result. One of those today came in the 55ᵗʰ minute, as Jasper Wiese was replaced by Lood de Jager. The Leicester Tigers back row was preferred at number 8 over Kwagga Smith in the continued absence of Duane Vermeulen as he was considered a more physical option, but struggled to make a positive impact on the game, struggling under a couple of high balls and giving away a couple of penalties.
However as if missing Vermeulen wasn’t bad enough for the Boks, they then lost superstar flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit after 20 minutes, as he had been struggling with an injury for about 15 minutes following an awkward landing after a tackle from Duhan van der Merwe. With du Toit going off and Kwagga Smith coming on, the Springboks found the lineout a real struggle, as they were down to just 2 jumpers in Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth, while Courtney Lawes at 6 provided the Lions with a 3ʳᵈ jumper to utilise alongside Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones.
And then came the big call, with Wiese going off and de Jager coming on at lock, moving Mostert to blind side flanker. Now Mostert may not be an obvious option at 7 for the Boks, but has experience of playing on the blindside and the tireless engine to do a job there, but while it may have taken away a bit of mobility in the loose, it considerably added to the set piece. Replacing Wiese with de Jager not only added extra ballast in the scrum, but it also gave the Boks their third lineout jumper again. With de Jager on, the Boks took control of the set piece, and there was no way back for the struggling Lions.
Man in the middle
This was a very odd week of build-up for the match. While the talk before the first Test was about the late call-up of South African Mariusz Jonker as TMO, this week saw things go to a completely new level, with Rassie Erasmus highly critical of Nic Berry’s performance last week, culminating in a 60 minute video highlighting a number of perceived mistakes from Berry that went against the Boks.
With so much pressure it was clear that everybody would be scrutinising this week’s referee Ben O’Keeffe’s performance even more than usual. Refereeing is a thankless task at the best of times but the New Zealander took on the task and did himself proud. While he did seem cautious to make a big call without consulting TMO Jonker and his fellow officials, and while there were some calls that could certainly be argued (most notably Am’s try and Kolbe only receiving a yellow card), O’Keeffe was very clear in talking through the incidents and how he and his team were coming to their decisions.
Will people say that he and his crew were influenced by Rassie Erasmus during the week? Of course. Is it true? Potentially? But should we see a repeat of this week’s criticism, only this time from the Lions? I sincerely hope not. But with next weekend’s Test now becoming the decider, expect to hear come comments from both camps as they try to get the advantage.