Two scratch teams set the Lions tour of South Africa in motion at an eerily underpopulated Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace yesterday, and for 80 long, painful minutes, it was the tourists who looked by far the scratchier. Fortunately for Paul O'Connell's men, there was enough stoppage time to make a difference. Two tries during the added extras, the first from Alun Wyn Jones and the second from Ronan O'Gara, turned things round, but celebrations were not so much muted as silent.
It was a relief that so few spectators – fewer than 13,000 of them – were there to watch this muddle unfold in the flesh. The tour organisers feared a poor attendance the moment the Pretoria-based Bulls qualified for the Super 14 final and bagged themselves home advantage at Loftus Versfeld, a few dozen kilometres down the road. The games were not quite played simultaneously, but they were close enough to knock untold thousands off the gate here.
The Lions' opponents, largely drawn from the Griqualand West provincial team and fleshed out with a handful of neighbouring Leopards, were either far better than the tourists had been led to expect or, more likely, good enough to take advantage of undercooked, butter-fingered favourites who could barely string two phases of play together. When the tight-head prop Bees Roux capitalised on a thrilling run from the elongated open-side flanker Devon Raubenheimer to cross from close range on 67 minutes, the Royals were 25-13 ahead and almost home.
But straight from Riaan Viljoen's restart return, Lee Byrne, the best of the Lions by some distance, hoisted the ball high, prodded it forward again when Russell Jeacocks and Bjorn Basson took up watching briefs rather than active ones, and found his way over the line for a live-saving try converted by O'Gara. The tourists did not really merit being back in it, but they were. An O'Gara penalty brought them closer still, and with the clock giving them a chance, they found the wherewithal to complete the job.
O'Connell and company might have smelled trouble when the Royals named four Leopards in their starting line-up and picked another four on the bench. The Leopards used to be known as Western Transvaal, the province who last inflicted an opening-match defeat on the Lions in this country, way back in 1955. Not that a Leopard was the most striking figure here. That description belonged to the Griquas No 8 Jonathan Mokuena, who made quite an impression one way or another – not least on O'Gara, whom he smashed all over the veld with an eyewatering tackle in the first half.
The Irish outside-half must have felt the effects of that little misfortune for some minutes – for all we know, he will feel them for the rest of the tour – but his marksmanship did not suffer. He opened the scoring with a simple penalty seven minutes into the contest and ended with 22 points. His kicking from hand was nowhere near as long as that of Viljoen, who hurt the Lions off the bench with his siege-gun punts, but when point-scoring chances arose, the Munsterman accepted them with a minimum of fuss.
Which was more than could be said for the likes of Shane Williams. Twice in the third quarter, when the Lions needed a settling score, the folk-hero wing from west Wales butchered the most straightforward of chances, first when he threw a horrible pass to Tommy Bowe and then, minutes later, when he ignored numbers going right before fumbling his touchdown in Raubenheimer's tackle. It was not an auspicious start for the 2008 World Player of the Year, for he was also less than persuasive when hoovering up in defence.
In a first half showcasing the strength of the Lions' scrum, the power of Jamie Roberts' running in midfield and precious little else from the British and Irish perspective, the Royals scored two tries. Their captain, Wilhelm Koch, stretched over for a fingertip score after a smart behind-the-back pass from Hanno Coetzee, and after Naas Olivier had added a penalty, the hooker Rayno Barnes rumbled through a parting of the waves from a driving maul.
This second try bordered on the embarrassing, and had Bowe not been given a run to the line by O'Gara in stoppage time, the Lions dressing room would have been full of recriminations. As the second half unfolded, serious doubts arose again. Only when Basson conceded a wholly unnecessary line-out in his own 22 did the Lions finally put Jones in range for the winning score. O'Gara's wrap-up try, the product of a barnstorming run upfield from O'Connell and a trademark pass out of the tackle from Martyn Williams, was much more than they deserved.
Lions: Man-for-mkan marking
15 LEE BYRNE 8/10
Faced the first high ball, delivered his first solid bit of play. Not afraid to try the odd thing, like an overhead pass that nearly sent Keith Earls away, and more than capable of breaking from deep when needed. Put his big boot to the ball to relieve pressure and his try, created cleverly, was absolutely bloody priceless. Man of the match and favourite for a Test place.
14 TOMMY BOWE 7/10
First try of the tour, taking a short slip pass from O'Gara to keep the Lions in touch just before the break. Made a big late tackle, in off his wing, to snuff out an attack that could have been awkward. Decent.
13 KEITH EARLS 5/10
Nervous. Things started fraying and his fumble led pretty directly to the Lions going 10-3 down. Replaced by Riki Flutey in the final quarter, and the England centre nearly went over for a try.
12 JAMIE ROBERTS 7/10
Usefully big boot, as well as the usual big boshes with the ball and without it. About the only source of momentum in the first half, when he made a couple of half-breaks. Solid.
11 SHANE WILLIAMS 6/10
Not much to do in the first half except scamper back to clean up messy bits. More to the fore as the match wore on, but if he wasn't going off half-cocked he wasn't quite full-cocked either, as it were. Dropped the ball stretching for the line.
10 RONAN O'GARA 7/10
Took a quick one instead of three points early on. Didn't do it the next time, and kicked the first points of the tour. Kicking out of hand was conservative, in general, but he picked a very good day to have a very good day with his place-kicking and he deserved his try at the end.
9 MIKE BLAIR 6/10
First touch of the ball for the Lions, first mistake – a kick charged down. Uncomfortable with the attentions of Sarel Pretorius and, thus, a little slow. Mike Phillips replaced him with 15 minutes to go and had a better time of it all round.
1 ANDREW SHERIDAN 6/10
Tackled the wrong man for the first Royal XV try and couldn't plug a hole for the second. The Lions pack had nine stone on their opponents. Maybe it was mostly him.
2 MATTHEW REES 5/10
Missed a stock ball to Shaw at No 2 in the line-out early on and started to miss more after that. It did seem to be him missing, rather than his jumpers not jumping. Eventually off for Lee Mears, who scuttled about with his usual industry.
3 ADAM JONES 6/10
Got an early nudge on and got penalised for it, which didn't matter so much – the Lions front row had their opponents "on toast". That said, the Royal XV's pack managed to avoid any serious damage. Replaced late on by Phil Vickery.
4 SIMON SHAW 6/10
Active at the side of the rucks, lurking, or hulking, with intent, but that led to the odd penalty, as it often does. The driving mauls weren't quite working either, and with this chap in the middle of them, they probably should have been. Alun-Wyn Jones came on and finished off the try that finished off the Royal XV – thank God for that, his mates might say. It was the kind of game when the replacements had it made.
5 PAUL O'CONNELL 6/10
If there were questions about his captaincy they begged answers at 18-3 down after half an hour. First big one – taking a scrum instead of three points. Correct? No. The Lions lost the ball. And again, for a line-out. Correct? Just about... try for Bowe. Otherwise the captain carried pretty well and sorted out the line-outs as the game went on, but he gave away the odd penalty at the breakdown too. Went back to taking the points later on.
6 JOE WORSLEY 6/10
Sucked into the general morass of mediocrity that passed for the first half. In the second half he found himself bowled over and unable to stop the third Royal XV try. The three-openside back-row never really worked.
7 MARTYN WILLIAMS 6/10
Scrapped and scrambled and salvaged on the floor – had to do so too much for his team's comfort and too often the Royal XV turned over the ball. Not at his best, then, but his luring of a defender and pass for O'Gara's try was lovely.
8 DAVID WALLACE 5/10
Not a No 8, and you could see it in the first half. Looked out of place in the middle of the back row. Jamie Heaslip, a real No 8, replaced him late on.Reuse content