It would have been a delicious irony: Phil Vickery, the sad and sorry fall guy in last week's Test defeat by South Africa in Durban, puts his scrummaging nightmare behind him by winning the set-piece penalty that secures the Lions a valuable, hard-fought victory over the Emerging Springboks in front of a 40,000-strong audience in Cape Town. The grand old West Country prop did his bit, forcing Pat Cilliers into the sodden Newlands turf a minute into stoppage time and earning James Hook an easy three-pointer that took the tourists to the very brink of success. And then...
With the last attack of the match, the second-string Boks launched a withering attack off a line-out in search of the seven points that would save them. Simon Shaw pulled off the tackle of the match to stop Franco van der Merwe dead in his tracks in front of the posts, but the ball was recycled and moved swiftly right, where the spectacularly rapid Danwel Demas dived over in the right corner. Willem de Waal, a thorn in the Lions' flesh when they played Western Province at this same venue 11 days ago, was faced with the most difficult of last-kick conversions, a metre in from touch with the wind and rain gusting all about him. Not for a single split-second did he look like missing.
The Lions could not claim to be hard done by. In desperate conditions – a gale blowing off the Atlantic, bringing a series of torrential squalls with it – they started well enough, opening up a 10-point lead in the first quarter through a short-range penalty from Ronan O'Gara and a lovely quickstepper's try from Keith Earls, the young Irish full-back. But their opponents were always in the game, their powerful back-row unit repeatedly asking the tourists questions in the loose, and as the contest wore on, the Lions found themselves being worn down.
Had Earl Rose been in reasonable touch with the boot, the Emerging Springboks would probably have won. They also wasted a clear-cut scoring opportunity late on when De Waal opted to kick downfield rather than pull the trigger for his outside backs on the overlap. All things considered, the Lions were fortunate to escape as intact as they did.
Not that the South Africans had all the star turns. Earls and his two wings, Shane Williams and Luke Fitzgerald, were magnificent under the high ball, barely putting a foot wrong in the face of a fusillade of steepling kicks from Rose, De Waal and the scrum-half Jano Vermaak. Williams, in particular, tried everything to bring some pizzazz to the Lions' attacking game, and if the conditions prevented him making anything like an unarguable case for Test selection this weekend, the little Welshman at least emerged comfortably in credit. His was a proud performance, full of passionate intensity.
It was Earls who most caught the eye with ball in hand, however. The 21-year-old Munsterman suffered horribly on his Lions debut in Rustenburg last month, but he has grown in stature since and the try he scored last night was a gem. When Zane Kirchner kicked a clearance straight to Martyn Williams, the impressive Welsh flanker clung to it against the odds and set Riki Flutey on what should have been a straight run to the line. Flutey was overhauled far too easily, but Earls made sure of the points with a lovely out-and-in run that took him beyond the clutches of the cover defence.
Rose cut the deficit to seven points and the same kicker then added a second penalty 10 minutes into the second half, but missed a straightforward opportunity at the start of the final quarter – an error that appeared to have cooked his side's goose until the Demas-De Waal double act five minutes into stoppage time.
* Nathan Hines, the Lions second-row forward, was last night cited for an alleged dangerous tackle on one of the Emerging Springboks. The Australian-born Scot will face a disciplinary hearing over the next 24 hours.
Emerging Springboks: Try Demas; Conversion De Waal; Penalties Rose 2. British and Irish Lions: Try Earls; Conversion O'Gara; Penalties O'Gara, Hook.
Emerging Springboks: Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls); B Basson (Griquas), D Van Rensburg (Leopards), M Newman (Western Province), L Vulindlu (Kwazulu-Natal); E Rose,
J Vermaak (both Golden Lions); W Du Preez (Free State), B Maku (Blue Bulls), W Kruger (Blue Bulls), S Sykes (Kwazulu-Natal), W Steenkamp (Blue Bulls), D Potgieter (Blue Bulls, capt), J Deysel (Kwazulu-Natal), D Vermeulen (Western Province). Replacements: W De Waal (Western Province) for Van Rensburg, 50; T Liebenberg (Western Province) for Maku, 50; H Adams (Blue Bulls) for Vermaak, 67; P Cilliers (Kwazulu-Natal) for Du Preez, 67; F Van der Merwe (Golden Lions) for Sykes, 67; J Botes (Kwazulu-Natal) for Deysel, 67; D Demas (Free State) for Basson, 77.
British and Irish Lions: K Earls (Ireland); S Williams (Wales), R Flutey (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland), L Fitzgerald (Ireland); R O'Gara (Ireland, capt), H Ellis (England); T Payne (England), R Ford (Scotland), J Hayes (Ireland), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), N Hines (Scotland), J Worsley (England), M Williams (Wales), A Powell (Wales). Replacements: J Hook (Wales) for O'Gara, 44; S Shaw (England) for Hines, 59; U Monye (England) for Fitzgerald, 68; P Vickery (England) for Hayes, 70; D Wallace (Ireland) for Powell, 72; L Mears (England) for Ford, 80.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).Reuse content