Lions management gloss fails to convince

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The Independent Online

The gloss which the Lions’ management put on this match was in the Dulux class. The post-match press conference became a tribute to some silky Lions back play which came astonishingly close to snatching the match out of the fire in the last quarter.

From a 26-7 deficit and a first 50 minutes in which they had been smashed physically, the Lions got back to 26-21 and within reach of probably their most sensational ever win in the southern hemisphere.

Coach Ian McGeechan said “The disappointment comes from the fact that we played very well. We had consistent scoring opportunities throughout the 80 minutes. But not finishing those and giving away some soft penalties meant we gave ourselves a mountain to climb by half time.

“But credit to the players and their attitude. If you look at the quality of rugby they were playing, some of it was outstanding. I was delighted with the performance and it gives us a lot of encouragement going into next week. To be held up over the line three times and have five other scoring opportunities go begging, it’s disappointing we didn’t do that little bit better.”

Naturally, McGeechan made no mention of his fellow coach Rob Howley’s midweek view that to have any chance of winning the series, the Lions had to win the first Test. Nor did McGeechan mention the fact that the Springboks were overwhelmingly superior from a physical point of view for the first 50 minutes, running up a 26-7 lead which seemed the base for a 35 or 40 point hiding.

It probably would have been had Springbok coach Peter de Villiers not made the crass mistake in believing the game was over before an hour was up. De Villiers took off key men like Bakkies Botha and Jean de Villiers and props John Smit and ‘Beast’ Mtawarira soon after.

The Springbok coach later admitted “Maybe I made too many changes too soon. We scored points but never looked as if we were in control of anything. We looked a bit flat and I thought we should inject some enthusiasm and speed. But it didn’t happen that way.”

If the ‘Boks were a bit flat in their coach’s view as they established a 26-7 lead, perhaps we had better not attempt to describe the Lions’ performance in that first 50 minutes. Ugo Monye crossed the line but couldn’t ground the ball and later on, had the ball knocked out of his hands as they seemed certain to score.

Lions captain Paul O’Connell bemoaned the missed tries and also the penalties which New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence dished out against tight head prop Phil Vickery. Lawrence penalised the Englishman five times, leading to his early withdrawal but O’Connell said “The referee said Phil was constantly boring in but I didn’t think so.

“Phil is a very experienced prop who has played rugby at the top for a long time. Why he would make the same mistake at four or five scrums is beyond me.”

McGeechan demanded clarification afterwards, saying the match tape and the Lions’ review would be sent to IRB referee supreme Paddy O’Brien. But Springbok captain John Smit was in no doubt about why Vickery struggled.

“The ‘Beast’ (Tendai Mtawarira) played a really big role today and in the weeks prior to the series. He was up against a hardened performer in Vickery and put in a very good performance.”

But Smit was less than thrilled that his men came so close to chucking away what should have been an overwhelming victory. There probably was a rustiness about us. The concentration levels lapsed, our kicking game went down the toilet in the last 20 minutes and we didn’t get out of our half.

“In the end, I went back on (as a late replacement after he had gone off earlier) to calm the ship down. We had given the Lions plenty of positions and that is certainly an area we have to work on for next week.”

How did Smith see the 2nd Test in Pretoria next Saturday ? “It’s going to be important to both teams but the beauty of a 3-game series is that although we have the advantage now, both teams are really left with something massive to play for.

“Both will be fighting hard, one to finish the job off, the other to survive. So the pressure will probably be twice as big next weekend.”

O’Connell looked subdued Saturday night in Durban. “It’s going to be difficult now but there is still a lot of belief there. When we played how we wanted to play today, we did very well and created lots of scoring opportunities. I think the guys will be looking forward to next week.”

Trouble is, so will the Springboks who are bound to give a full 80 minute display next week. That will make the task facing McGeechan’s men even tougher.