It was an astonishing effort against a side confidently expected to run away with this season's Currie Cup honours. The Lions' preparations were never going to be ideal, given their decision to travel from sea level to thin air on the day, and a delayed flight merely added to their problems. In the light of all that, Fran Cotton was perfectly entitled to describe the victory as "one of the all-time great performances in Lions' history".
There was, however, a downside, just as there was in Durban a week and a half ago when a spectacular victory over Natal was marred by the loss of Robert Howley. This time, the victim was Will Greenwood, the young Leicester centre who looked at the peak of his considerable powers at the Free State Stadium until he was speared by a brute of a tackle from Jaco Coetzee.
Greenwood fell on his head with a sickening thud and after a minute of frantic activity - Rob Wainwright, the Lions' blind-side flanker and an army doctor by profession, reacted automatically and was quickly joined by the tourists' resident medic, James Robson - he was carried off on a stretcher unconscious and taken straight to hospital for precautionary scans. Cotton, the Lions manager, later confirmed that concussion had been diagnosed and that Greenwood's tour was at an end.
The incident occurred on the stroke of half-time and it was hardly surprising that the opening minutes of the second period saw the Lions at their lowest. Stephen Brink, the rapid Free State wing, scored a disputed try within five minutes of the restart to give the South Africans a glimpse of daylight at 20-31 but Tim Stimpson's consistent goalkicking and Bentley's hat-trick score on 55 minutes slammed the door shut once again.
As so often on this tour, the Lions came out firing live ammunition and by the break were up, up and away at 31-13. With their back row triumvirate of Wainwright, Neil Back and the brilliant Eric Miller in the ascendant and Simon Shaw producing a Test-class performance at lock, yet another hard-nosed South African pack found themselves blown to the four corners of their own pitch.
There was class outside, too, particularly in the shape of Allan Bateman, and his try-scoring performance at outside centre may well have earned him a place in this Saturday's second Test with the Springboks. The London- based Welshman's tackling was of Scott Gibbs velocity but he also brought vision and intellect to his game. If the Lions feel they can afford to do without him at King's Park this weekend, they must be one hell of a side.
Stimpson set the scoreboard rolling with a second-minute penalty and followed up by holding Mike Catt's diamond of a cross-kick on the full to claim the first try after eight minutes. Bentley then knocked the Free Staters further back on their heels, taking advantage of some free running from Wainwright and Barry Williams to leave Helgard Muller and Johan Erasmus in a sorry mess en route to the right corner. Fourteen minutes gone, 17 points in the bag.
Miller laid the foundations for the buoyant Newcastle wing's second try on 26 minutes - this time, Bentley embarrassing Brink and M J Smith in typically ebullient style - and when Bateman combined fluently with Greenwood to cross four minutes before the break, the Lions knew they could not be beaten.
Inspired by the vigorous Johan Erasmus at open-side flanker and some cultured outside-half play by Jannie de Beer, Free State had their moments in the third quarter. But the irrepressible Bentley put an end to that nonsense following a piledriving burst up the middle from Shaw and late run-ins for Neil Jenkins and Tony Underwood hoisted the tally over the half-century mark.
Free State: Tries Brink 2, de Beer; Conversions de Beer 3; Penalties de Beer 3. British Isles: Tries Bentley 3, Stimpson, Bateman, Jenkins, Underwood; Conversions Stimpson 4; Penalties Stimpson 3.
FREE STATE: M J Smith; J-H van Wyk, H Muller (capt), B Venter, S Brink; J de Beer, S Fourie (H Jacobs, h-t); D Groenewald, C Marais, W Meyer (D Heymans, 61), R Opperman, B Els, C van Rensburg, J Coetzee, J Erasmus.
BRITISH ISLES: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); J Bentley (Newcastle and England), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), W Greenwood (Leicester), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); M Catt (Bath and England), A Healey (Leicester and England); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), B Williams (Richmond and Wales), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), N Redman (Bath and England; capt), S Shaw (Wasps and England), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), N Back (Leicester and England). Replacements: N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales) for Greenwood, 40; J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Young, 70.
Referee: J Kaplan (Natal).Reuse content