Lions survive scare to record opening win

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The blundering British and Irish Lions narrowly avoided an embarrassing defeat as their South Africa tour spluttered into life.

The tourists trailed 25-13 with 14 minutes left at Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace against a team which had never previously played together.

The Lions had not lost their first fixture on tour since 1971 - when Queensland beat them in Brisbane en route to New Zealand - but that spectre loomed large.

They were rescued though, through late tries by substitute lock Alun-Wyn Jones and fly-half Ronan O'Gara, who also kicked three penalties and four conversions for a 22-point haul.

Wing Tommy Bowe and impressive full-back Lee Byrne claimed earlier tries, but the representative Royal XV managed three of their own through skipper Willhelm Koch, hooker Rayno Barnes and prop Bees Roux.

Home number eight Jonathan Mokuena was a deserved man of the match and the Lions will feel a colossal sense of relief after getting out of jail.

They made numerous handling errors and several scoring chances went begging against opponents drawn from Vodacom Cup sides like the Griquas and Leopards.

And their display suggested world champions South Africa have little to worry about in next month's Test series unless there is a vast improvement.

The Lions will put much of their display down to early rustiness, but a sparse crowd of 12,532 in a 42,000-capacity stadium expected so much more.

Byrne looked their most accomplished performer, while skipper Paul O'Connell had his moments, but there were poor displays from the likes of centre Keith Earls and scrum-half Mike Blair.

The Lions now move back to Johannesburg, where Super 14 side the Golden Lions await on Wednesday night, and it will be difficult for them not to produce a better display.

Powerful Wales centre Jamie Roberts proved an immediate handful for the Royal XV defence, and such was the Lions' confidence that O'Gara ran a penalty within simple kicking range.

But any faith proved misplaced as the Lions struggled for long periods during an inept first half display.

Once Olivier had cancelled out O'Gara's opening penalty, the Royal XV took charge, storming 15 points clear.

The Lions were in disarray as Koch stretched out for a close-range try before Barnes rounded off an impressive driving maul that had the Lions defence at sixes and sevens.

Earls could do little right in midfield, starting his personal nightmare when he spilled Shane Williams' pass after being freed on an overlap.

Williams offered a lively presence, looking to attack from deep, yet his sense of adventure was undermined by unforced errors elsewhere.

Earls then dropped a high ball and showed his frustration by kicking it disgustedly off the pitch.

At 18-3 adrift, the Lions found themselves in dire need of some inspiration.

They had won their last two opening tour fixtures 34-20 (New Zealand 2005) and 116-10 (Australia 2001), yet the Royal XV had no intention of being a soft touch.

The Lions pack decided to take charge as the clock ticked down before half-time, building a platform deep inside their opponents' 22, yet a promising position was wasted when they lost possession.

But Bowe then gave the Lions hope, taking O'Gara's inside pass to score between the posts, with O'Gara converting to make it 18-10 and suggest a fightback might at last be on the cards.

O'Gara further cut the gap by booting another penalty, yet only after Royal XV wing Egon Seconds was called back after intercepting a pass and sprinting clear, being denied a certain try.

The Lions though, gradually exerted sustained pressure, displaying far more urgency, even if two chances went begging.

Williams failed to find an unmarked Bowe five metres out, then Williams could not hang onto the ball in the act of diving over.

For the first time the Royal XV were in reverse, but a combination of their defensive resilience and Lions handling errors meant it remained 18-13 approaching the final quarter.

The Lions flattered to deceive and fell further behind when the Royal XV claimed a third try.

Roux was the scorer, ploughing through a tired-looking Lions defence, and substitute Riaan Viljoen slotted a touchline conversion.

There were signs of the Lions looking down and out, yet Byrne conjured a fine solo try that O'Gara converted, cutting the gap to 25-20 with 13 minutes left.

McGeechan made six substitutions in quick succession, hoping the likes of Mike Phillips, Riki Flutey and Phil Vickery could inject some fresh ideas.

Ultimately, the Royal XV were just four minutes away from a remarkable triumph.

But Jones broke their hearts when his try put the Lions ahead before O'Gara's conversion completed the salvage job ahead of him scoring a last-gasp touchdown that he also improved.