De Villiers' early switches almost let Lions off hook

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The Independent Online

A series of extraordinary tactical changes by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers came crazily close to costing South Africa this First Test.

De Villiers took off too many key men too early and the Springboks very nearly paid the ultimate price. The Lions launched so roaring a recovery that 26-7 turned into 26-21 and it was the world champions who were left hanging on. For the fact is until then, South Africa's massive physicality had carried all before it. And one moment at Kings Park summed up the difference between these two teams.

The wonderfully brave, committed Lions flanker David Wallace took the ball into contact, taking care to dip his head and body when he spied the South African reception committee awaiting him. Wallace was engulfed by the second-row Bakkies Botha and a couple of his mates. The foray ended with Wallace being picked up and slung over big Bakkies' shoulder like some rabbit in the poacher's bag.

Throughout a one-sided first hour, the Springboks were massively powerful, altogether quicker and more dynamic at the breakdown. Add on the collective slaughter they inflicted upon Lions tight head Phil Vickery which led to his long, lonely premature walk from the field after just 45 minutes, and you have the reasons why the Springboks looked in a different class. "Beast" Mtawarira was simply immense in his tight scrummaging work and helped wreck the Lions scrum.

But just in case the onlooker needed more vivid evidence of the Springboks' overwhelming physical superiority it came with two rolling mauls early in the second half, one of which led to Heinrich Brussow's try. The Lions were utterly impotent in trying to stop the fearsome power of the Springbok pack, every time it washed right over them. Was that the pack? What about Morne Steyn's hammering tackle on the Lions wing Ugo Monye with seven minutes left which crashed the ball out of Monye's arms and saved a certain try.

Without the firepower even to suggest parity was possible up front, the Lions played most of the Test match on the back foot. This was as appetising a dish to the Springboks as the sight of boerwoers sizzling on a giant braai. Strong men like Botha, Victor Matfield (who outplayed Paul O'Connell) and Pierre Spies, simply licked their lips and tucked in.

And if all that was not sufficient evidence and you wanted another illustration of why the Lions, the pride of northern hemisphere rugby, were second best here and flattered by the final scoreline, there was the flawed defensive cameo enacted by the Ireland wing Tommy Bowe just before half-time.

Bowe turned about as slowly in defence as some ocean liner. In fairness to him, this was the pace at which he and so many players operate in Britain and Ireland. Alas, down here in the harsh proving ground of southern hemisphere rugby, it is different. Bowe was consumed by the rapidly arriving attack, had to cling on to possession and conceded a penalty which Ruan Pienaar kicked for a 19-7 half time lead.

Until the crazy last quarter, the Lions did everything and thought about everything at a reduced pace compared with the South Africans. At 26-7 after just 47 minutes, De Villiers was clearly also salivating. He thought he could afford to take off Botha and Jean de Villiers with almost 25 minutes remaining. Others quickly followed yet, as is often the case, the substitutions wrecked South Africa's rhythm and their opponents suddenly found a launch pad to play their best rugby of the match, giving a ridiculously one-sided slant to the final quarter. But we should not be misled.

The Lions' challenge had been weakened further by the nonsensical, emotional decision not to play the Test XV together at least once before the first international. In truth, it had been little more than a training run-out for the world champions in the first hour. Yet you could see, despite their superiority, they had not played for several weeks because there was not quite the precision or timing in much of their play.

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