Cape Town is a sea-level city. You can tell this by the fact that it is washed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, although not all rugby players pick up on these clues. (Back in the mid-1990s, an out-of-breath, out-of-condition England prop tried to blame his physical distress on the effects of high altitude, while training on the beach in Durban). On days like Saturday, the place seems more like Gloucester or Cardiff – cold, wet, windy – than one of the southern hemisphere's most bewitching locations. In other words, the Lions should love it here.
In reality, they are mightily relieved not to be meeting the Springboks in the cradle of South African rugby. They may have won in Cape Town a dozen years ago – Matt Dawson's dummy, bought hook, line and sinker by the Bok captain Gary Teichmann, still lives in the memory – but they have had more than their share of problems in these parts down the years, not least against Western Province teams in their many and varied guises.
At the weekend, the problem was very significant indeed. Far more significant than the tourists would have wished, a week shy of the first match in the Test series.
For the third Saturday in succession, the contest went down to the last knockings. In Rustenburg, the Lions needed stoppage time tries to see off a ho-hum mix of Griquas and Leopards operating as a Royal XV; in Bloemfontein, they survived a last-minute drop goal attempt from the Free State back Louis Strydom by all of three inches. Here, it fell to James Hook to spare his colleagues a first blemish on their perfect record. Should the Lions go on to win the series, they will look back on Hook's wonderful 50-metre (below) penalty as a gift from the gods.
The Welshman has caught the eye more than once on this trip, and in the process he has made a mockery of the decision to omit him from the original party. An outside-half by instinct and breeding, he was pressed into service at full-back against a well organised, highly charged Western Province outfit after Rob Kearney had done himself a temporary mischief attempting to tackle a hulking great brute by the name of Anton van Zyl during the build-up to the hosts' one and only try. Hook slipped into No 15 mode with a minimum of fuss, and when he found himself in possession in a little space, he looked full of attacking ideas.
It would be no surprise to see him start at least one Test in his more familiar position, even though the outside-half pick for this weekend's Test at Kings Park is commonly thought to be between Stephen Jones (a strong defender and a better tactical kicker than his performance on Saturday suggested) and Ronan O'Gara (a top-notch operator with the boot, but less than frightening in the tackle, unless you happen to be playing alongside him, when he is very scary indeed). Certainly, there will be a clamour for Hook if the Lions go one down and have to bring their attacking A-game to the party come the second Test in Pretoria.
Jones rather lost out to the Western Province stand-off Willem de Waal, whose kicking display in difficult conditions was punishingly effective. Twice, the Lions seemed to have the game won: at 18-9 shortly before the interval and at 23-15 on the hour. But De Waal was in prime form punting out of hand and none too shabby when taking aim at the sticks. When Joe Pietersen, the home full-back, crossed in the left corner early in the final quarter with his opposite number, Kearney, spreadeagled on the deck, the scores were level and stayed that way for 16 compelling minutes.
Enter Euan Murray, stage right. The Scottish tight-head prop appears to be one of two things: either he is surplus to the requirements of the head coach, Ian McGeechan, hence his lack of game time to date, or he is the Lions' secret weapon, hence his lack of game time to date. Here, he made such a mess of the Western Province replacement front-rower J D Moller that he twice forced him to collapse a scrum. From the second of the ensuing penalties, Hook won the game.
Andrew Sheridan also scrummaged strongly and, as a result, Test selection at prop is a subject of considerable debate. Do the Lions go mobile and pick the likes of Gethin Jenkins and Phil Vickery, masters of the high tackle count and more than useful at the breakdown? Or do they attack the Springbok set piece in the knowledge that John Smit, the captain, is less capable at prop than he is at hooker, and that while "Beast" Mtawarira may be many things, he is not the greatest scrummager on earth?
McGeechan had said all along that he wants difficult decisions rather than easy ones, and in this department at least, he has his wish. Elsewhere, things are a little more straightforward. Tommy Bowe, the form wing, continued on his merry way here by scoring one try and creating a second for Ugo Monye with a trademark diagonal run and a nice little lobbed pass. Martyn Williams, playing for his place on the open-side flank, started and finished the Lions' third try and did some lovely things with ball in hand. Whether it was enough to push him ahead of David Wallace remains a moot point.
Afterwards, McGeechan acknowledged that his side's kicking game had been a good deal less than brilliant, that his decision-makers were guilty of playing "too much rugby" in their own half, and that the wintry weather had prevented his team playing in quite the way he would have liked. He also said that he would happily have settled for a five-from-five record ahead of the tour, even though he has yet to witness even a semi-convincing performance on a weekend. The Lions now have less than a week before the Saturday that really matters. If only the Tests were played on a Wednesday...
Western Province: Try Pietersen; Penalties De Waal 4; Drop goals De Waal, Pietersen. Lions: Tries Bowe, Monye, Williams; Conversion Jones; Penalties Jones 2, Hook.
Western Province: J Pietersen; T Chavhanga (G Aplon, 40), M Newman, P Grant, G Bobo; W De Waal, D Duvenage; W Blaauw (JD Moller, 76), T Liebenberg, B Harris, M Muller (D Steenkamp, 65), A Van Zyl, P Louw (C Hoffman, 74), D Vermeulen, L Watson (capt).
Lions: R Kearney (Ireland); T Bowe (Ireland), K Earls (Ireland), R Flutey (England), U Monye (England); S Jones (Wales), H Ellis (England); A Sheridan (England), M Rees (Wales), P Vickery (England, capt), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), N Hines (Scotland), J Worsley (England), M Williams (Wales), A Powell (Wales). Replacements: R Ford (Scotland) for Rees, 56; E Murray (Scotland) for Vickery, 56; S Shaw (England) for Hines, 56; J Hook (Wales) for Kearney, 65; T Croft (England) for Worsley, 70.
Referee: M Lawrence (South Africa).
Test place? Winners and losers from the Cape
Tommy Bowe: No one, not even Jamie Roberts or Brian O'Driscoll, is playing better. Once again, the Irish wing proved himself a creator of tries, as well as a top-notch finisher.
Euan Murray: If the Lions can make this sort of impact off the bench, the Springboks will not have a moment's rest. Murray's heavyweight scrummaging was a decisive weapon.
Andy Powell: Finally, we saw some effective route-one carrying from the party's prime physical specimen. His huge tackle on Duane Vermeulen was also something to savour.
Riki Flutey: Nothing much happened for the England centre, although he must have been relieved simply to get through a game on his injured knee. Nowhere near visible enough.
Stephen Jones: An off-colour kicking performance out of hand raised questions over the outside-half position in the first Test. Early assumptions are suddenly being revisited.
Ross Ford: There is no denying the Scot's physical presence, but against the world's best line-out the Lions will need a hooker who can find his man, on each and every occasion.Reuse content