The Lions had pledged to guard against it and they could not have been more sincere in their promise, but the almost inevitable slippage into end-of-term demob happiness was all too evident in Welkom yesterday. Hard though the tourists tried to give the high-veld cannon fodder from Northern Free State the anticipated mother of all pastings, the killer instinct that won them the Test series with the Springboks in Durban at the weekend was absent without leave.
True, they put 10 tries past the Free Staters but they leaked five in reply and conceded a record 39 points in all. Not even the New Zealanders in their pomp managed to clock up more than the side mocked and harangued as the worst provincial outfit in South Africa; the best the All Blacks have managed was a 38-point haul in the fourth Test in Auckland 14 years ago.
Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, was quick to describe the match as "unsatisfactory", but not for the above reasons. He was reacting in typically forthright style to what he described as "several stampings" on the heads of various team members - allegations vehemently denied by the Northerns' hierarchy.
Cotton also gave both barrels to the referee, Dan de Villiers, and the rock-hard nature of the North West Stadium playing surface. It might, he suggested, have been safer all round had the game been played on reinforced concrete.
"It could have been dangerous out there," Ian McGeechan, the coach, agreed. "We've tried to play the game in the right way over here - you can't play the style of rugby we've aspired to without immense self-discipline - and most of our opponents have showed discipline, too. The only problems we've encountered have been the games in Mpumalanga and here, and we'll look at the video of this one to see what went on."
When Tony Underwood, the Newcastle wing, matched Rob Wainwright's achievement against Mpumalanga in the fourth match of the tour by running in a hat- trick of tries in the opening 23 minutes, the proverbial cricket score looked a certainty rather than a possibility. Indeed, a three-figure tally was not beyond the realms of the imagination when Simon Shaw, Neil Back and Kyran Bracken crashed over for close-range tries before the break to send the Lions in for their oranges 43-12 to the good.
But a looseness and lack of focus seeped into the tourists' collective bloodstream in the second half and Northerns won that particular 40-minute battle 27-24. Much of that recovery could be credited to their captain, Jurie Jerling, who played a strong game at scrum-half. There were also thoroughly worthwhile contributions from Otto Wagner, the hooker, and Stephen Niewenhuyzen, a real handful of a middle jumper.
There was never the remotest danger of a genuine upset, however. Tim Stimpson's goal-kicking was once again up there on the Neil Jenkins plane - not only did he leave Welkom with 27 points in his swagbag, but also with the satisfaction of beating his Welsh rival to the century mark for the tour - and with Neil Back in characteristically sensational form and Mark Regan producing his best performance of the trip up there at the sharp end, defeat was not a viable option.
Especially as they hit the ground running. Mike Catt, very much on his toes at stand-off, combined cleverly with Tony Diprose and Stimpson to pave the way for Underwood's opener in the second minute and even though Nick Beal conceded a penalty try by obstructing Willie Nagel in a chase for the line six minutes later, the traffic was of the one-way variety.
Northerns stemmed the tide in first-half injury time, Michael Ehrentraut capitalising on a strong run from Wagner to score at the posts. Six minutes into the second period, the hooker emerged from a pile of bodies with a try of his own to celebrate and even though the Lions were still able to score at regular intervals, last-quarter tries from Albertus van Buuren and Eric Herbert applied an unexpected sheen to the final scoreline.
Northern Free State: Tries Penalty, Ehrentraut, Wagner, Van Buuren, Herbert; Conversions Herbert 4; Penalties Herbert 2. British Isles: Tries Underwood 3, Shaw 2, Stimpson 2, Back, Regan, Bracken; Conversions Stimpson 7; Penalty Stimpson.
NORTHERN FREE STATE: M Ehrentraut; R Harmse, A van Buuren, T de Beer, W Nagel; E Herbert, J Jerling (capt); K Appelgryn, O Wagner, B Nel, K Heydenrich, S Niewenhuyzen, H Kershaw, M Venter, E Delport. Replacements: J Burrows for Ehrentraut, 68; A Fouche for Delport, 75.
BRITISH ISLES: T Stimpson (Newcastle and England); T Stanger (Hawick and Scotland), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), N Beal (Northampton and England), T Underwood (Newcastle and England); M Catt (Bath and England), K Bracken (Saracens and England); J Leonard (Harlequins and England, capt), M Regan (Bristol and England), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), N Redman (Bath and England), S Shaw (Wasps and England), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland), A Diprose (Saracens and England), N Back (Leicester and England). Replacements: G Rowntree (Leicester and England) for Leonard, h-t; A Healey (Leicester and England) for Bracken, 54.
Referee: D de Villiers (Western Province).Reuse content