The Lions were pushed back in at least six scrums, and Johnson said: "We are all learning that rugby over here is tougher than anything in the Five Nations. We had a few scrums where we did not concentrate - and that hurt us. We scrummaged as individuals. Five Nations rugby is played at the same pace, but not with the same control. We scored some great tries at the end but if we hadn't we were clearly on course to lose. Fortunately we were superior in the last quarter, but there is a lot of self-belief in this squad and no one wants to be the player to let the rest down."
None the less, problems remain - and serious ones. The Lions' scrummaging against a lightweight Western Province pack was abject and if they turn in a similarly insipid tight performance in any of their next eight matches, they will be blown apart. They also showed a worrying vulnerability in the tackle - time and again Western's loose forwards, led brilliantly by Andrew Aitken, turned over Lions possession with aggressive hits.
But the fact remained that the tourists manufactured four tries to pass the first serious examination of their South African adventure. They also underlined their ability to stand tall in adversity - when Aitken worked Robbie Brink over at the posts for a try eight minutes into the second half, the Lions were behind for the third match in succession.
It was then they showed the character that may - just may - give them a puncher's chance in the Tests. Tim Stimpson, on target with seven of his eight kicks at goal for a personal haul of 18 points, turned things round with penalties on 51 and 65 minutes. And when Rob Howley broke clear from a ruck into the 22, he floated a pass over Jeremy Guscott's head to free Evans for the killer score. Bentley's last-minute try was rather more prosaic, but no less welcome. The Newcastle wing is no Linford Christie, but he is certainly irrepressible. Some of the Lions' rugby in the opening half-hour was 24-carat merchandise, almost unrecognisable from the leaden- footed fare on offer against Border in East London last Wednesday.
But then, the conditions underfoot were also unrecognisable and the fast Newlands going, fundamental to the high-octane style favoured by the hosts, was equally to the liking of Howley, Gregor Townsend and the dangerous centre pairing of Guscott and Alan Tait.
Strong running from Tait, intelligently supported by Richard Hill and Bentley, opened up the South Africans at the start. When Barry Williams delivered a perfectly weighted pass to Evans, the old man of the party worked his way to within a metre of a second-minute try. The tourists did not wait much longer to make their mark. Stimpson slotted a 33-metre penalty in the fourth minute and, when Townsend stripped the Western Province midfield bare with a typically unorthodox scamper nine minutes later, Simon Shaw drove the ball to the home posts and turned in jubilation to see Howley and Guscott give Bentley the red-carpet treatment to the left corner. Stimpson converted and the Lions had a two-score lead.
When Stimpson kicked a second penalty despite falling on his backside, the notoriously noisy Newlands crowd might as well have been sitting in church. Their silence was short-lived, though. Tim Rodber, useful at the line-out but a yard short of a gallop around the paddock, was given the bum's rush by a heavy double-tackle on his own 10-metre line, Aitken left the cover for dead to win a penalty and, from the resulting scrum, Dick Muir dummied over for a try, converted by Percy Montgomery.
Tait, hugely impressive, restored the tourists' cushion with a smart try in the 27th minute after clever linkage between Guscott and Bentley. But with the Western Province front row in complete control, the hosts looked more threatening and it was no surprise when Muir slipped away from Bentley and Townsend to stretch over for a second try five minutes before the break. Grateful as the visitors may have been not to be behind, their four-point interval advantage looked distinctly fragile.
Survival in those circumstances was an achievement, especially as Western Province hit the ground running after the break. But the hard yards are still to come - Northern Transvaal, Free State, Gauteng and Natal are next on the agenda - and, for all the talent in place out wide, the Lions will need iron commitment and no little muscle to keep morale at its present high.
lPaul Grayson and Nick Beal are struggling with injuries and might miss the rest of the tour. The Northampton pair will have medical tests today but their replacements could be Bath's Mike Catt and Adedayo Adebayo who played last night against Argentina. Grayson has had a thigh strain since 8 March and Beal is thought to have a knee injury.
Western Province: J Swart; J Small, R Fleck, R Muir (capt), S Berridge; P Montgomery, S Hatley; G Pagel, A Paterson, K Andrews, F van Heerden, H Louw, C Krige, R Brink, A Aitken. Replacements: T van der Linde for Pagel, 56; B Skinstad for Krige, 65.
Lions: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland), J Bentley (Newcastle and England); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), R Hill (Saracens and England), T Rodber (Northampton and England). Replacements: S Quinnell (Richmond and Wales) for Rodber, 62; W Greenwood (Leicester) for Tait, 72.
Referee: A Schoonwinkel (Free State).Reuse content