Two close shaves in as many Saturdays have concentrated the minds of the Lions' hierarchy on the glaring deficiencies of their team's act at the breakdown, where the Test series against the Springboks will surely be decided.
Ian McGeechan, the head coach, admitted last night that a good deal of work will have to be done over the next fortnight after watching Heinrich Brussow, the diminutive Free State flanker, disrupt the tourists' momentum with a virtuoso display in and around the tackle area.
"Part of it is about interpretation," said McGeechan, who was none too impressed by the approach of the English referee Wayne Barnes.
"The whole question of whether a player is on his feet, off his feet, when he goes off his feet – the business of whether the tackler is rolling away quickly enough... these are difficult areas, very technical areas, and on this occasion, it became a lottery. But yes, it is something we'll have to get up to speed with, because it will be very important to be competitive there against the Boks."
McGeechan also acknowledged that the lack of a Brussow-type forward operating low to the ground and close to the ball made life difficult for his team. Joe Worsley, cast in his latest England role on the openside flank rather than in his more familiar Wasps position on the blindside, defended with his usual aggression, but was no match for his opposite number on the floor.
"Our shortage of an out-and-out No 7 was a factor," the coach said. "Joe is a great defender who plays in a certain way, but you need that on-the-ball presence as well."
Paul O'Connell, the captain, was strikingly honest about his team's issues at the breakdown. "I think we stopped putting in the numbers after we went 20-0 up, and against South African teams, you need numbers going in low and aggressively and competing for the ball," said the Irish lock.
"The Cheetahs were very good in that area. Some of the decisions seemed a little strange, but we were turned over on a number of occasions and turnovers can kill a team. They slow your momentum while giving the other side belief."
For all that, there were positive aspects of the game from the Lions' perspective. James Hook's perfect return on the goal-kicking front – six out of six – contrasted sharply with the Free State kickers, Jaques-Louis Potgieter and Louis Strydom, who missed three penalty shots between them, any one of which might have won the game. "I think James was excellent in that department," McGeechan said. "I think our kickers have shown up well in all three of our fixtures."
The tourists were also more than happy with the iron strength of Andrew Sheridan and Euan Murray at the set-piece – perhaps the single most important factor in the outcome of the match. Even the Cheetahs admitted they had been badly outplayed in this department.
"Sheridan is one of the strongest loose-head props in the world, without a doubt," said the Free State coach Naka Drotske, who played hooker for the Springboks the last time the Lions were here, a dozen years ago. "I was worried about our scrum before the game and it's true that we struggled there."
However, he also pointed to what he considered an obvious way of cramping the Lions' style. "The best way to play them is to deny them momentum," Drotske said. "The important thing is to get in their faces in defence and stay there, and I think we did that very well. Heinrich Brussow was particularly effective."
There were no immediate injury concerns for the Lions. Luke Fitzgerald, making his first appearance on tour, limped off three minutes from the end of normal time, but was said to be suffering from a straightforward case of cramp.Reuse content