Forget the Wednesday night waltz in Johannesburg. South African rugby showed its hard face at the Free State Stadium yesterday, the locals testing the Lions to the limit in a compelling game ultimately decided by the strength of the tourists' set-piece and the two or three centimetres that denied Louis Strydom a match-winning drop goal a minute into stoppage time. Strydom struck boldly from near the halfway line, but saw his kick slide to the right of the posts. It could barely have been closer.
But for the Lions' scrum – and, to a slightly lesser extent, their line-out – the Free Staters would have won. They made life horribly difficult for the tourists at the breakdown, robbing them of possession like some band of rugby-playing highwaymen. Joe Worsley, pressed into service at openside flanker because of Martyn Williams' shoulder injury, could not reproduce his England form in the position, and found himself being replaced by a lock forward in Nathan Hines.
There was not much to savour from the back division, either. Indeed, there were times yesterday when the Saturday side gave an uncanny impression of a Lions midweek team in a state of late-tour depression. Something will have to change ahead of the Test series with the Springboks. Something very substantial.
Much had been said about the prospects of a first-rate dust-up in this match – not on the scale of the 1997 conflict with Mpumalanga in Witbank, perhaps, but a frank and earnest exchange of opinion all the same. Judging by the way the Cheetahs tore into the tackle area from the first whistle, with the highly-rated flanker Heinrich Brussow and the hooker Adriaan Strauss to the fore, it seemed the home side had indeed decided on an ultra-physical approach, and when the second scrum broke up in a flurry of two-man scraps, the suspicion was confirmed. Euan Murray, the Lions tight-head prop, and his direct opponent, Wian du Preez, were the men singled out for a lecture.
James Hook, perfectly at home with his long-range kicking in the thin air of the high veld, settled things down with an opening penalty on seven minutes, and it signalled a spell of rich pickings for the Lions. First, there was a bizarre try for Stephen Ferris, who covered the 35 metres to the line in glorious isolation after snaffling some ruck ball from under the nose of Tewis de Bruyn, the home scrum-half. Then, there was a magnificent strike from another Irishman, the centre Keith Earls, who latched on to a clever midfield chip from Hook and stepped twice off his right foot to flummox the Cheetahs' defence.
It could not have felt sweeter for Earls, who had suffered all the torments of sporting purgatory during last week's opening match in Rustenburg. While the midfield combination of the young Munsterman and Luke Fitzgerald bore no resemblance to the dynamic Jamie Roberts-Brian O'Driscoll partnership that ripped up the Golden Lions in Johannesburg, it was reassuring to see Earls' confidence partially restored.
Early in the second quarter, the Lions had built a 20-point lead. The fun did not last. With Brussow working overtime at the breakdown, the Cheetahs finally won themselves some front-foot possession and sent De Bruyn scuttling into the 22, supported by the full-back Hennie Daniller. Ferris killed the ball on the floor and was given a 10-minute rest without the option by Wayne Barnes, the referee. In that instant, the tenor of the game changed.
Just shy of the half-hour, Brussow drove hard off the base of a scrum and the Free Staters sent the super-quick wing Danwel Demas over at the corner for a try handsomely converted by Jacques-Louis Potgieter. Eight minutes later, the outstanding Brussow made another intervention at close quarters, enabling De Bruyn to put the substantial Du Preez within rumbling range. The prop duly did the business, smashing through Lee Byrne for another converted try. Hook's injury-time penalty gave the Lions a nine-point lead at the interval, but the worm had turned.
The second half turned out to be a serious trial for the Lions. Hook's marksmanship just about kept them ahead of the game, but a late interception try from Corne Uys, who pounced on a loose pass from Shane Williams, gave them a nasty dose of the heebie-jeebies.