There is always a "softening up" game at some point during a tour of South Africa and the Lions were softened to a pulp here in Port Elizabeth yesterday. The Southern Kings, a rag-tag team pieced together as a new franchise with Super 14 ambitions and playing their first game together, took aim at the visitors from the get-go and found their mark with unerring accuracy, leaving red-shirted victims laying in shallow graves across the Eastern Cape. They played some decent rugby too, in fairness to them, but the talk afterwards was of the overt physicality that summoned the spectre of a bygone age of mayhem.
To their credit, the tourists recovered from a desperate first half to exert a degree of authority after the break. There was a try for Ugo Monye in the right corner after a beautifully weighted cross-kick from the outstanding Ronan O'Gara, and a penalty try earned by the Lions scrummagers, who were in complete command at the set-piece. But they conceded a score to the excellent flanker Mpho Mbiyozo at the death and the price they paid for victory was heavy, especially with the first Test against the Springboks looming this weekend.
The Lions lost Euan Murray, their tight-head prop, to a sprained ankle after 10 minutes, and James Hook, their bright young outside-half, to a severe bout of grogginess a short while later – a departure that led to O'Gara's appearance off the bench. If there was no suggestion of dirty work in Murray's case, Hook's injury may or may not have been caused deliberately. Such was the venomous nature of the tackling, an accurate separation of the legal from the illegal was a difficult matter.
Much of the havoc was wreaked by the senior backs: the likes of the old English Premiership hands Jaco van der Westhuyzen, De Wet Barry, Frikkie Welsh and an astonishingly aggressive Wylie Human, who made a real mess of a few, including Hook and Joe Worsley. Human's inhumanity to man? It had a certain ring to it, although the man who ultimately incurred the displeasure of Nigel Owens, a very lenient referee, was Van der Westhuyzen, who spent time in the sin bin after clattering Riki Flutey with a thoroughly nasty head shot.
It is not exactly unknown for tour matches to turn wild in these parts. The biggest city in the Eastern Cape was the scene of the third and decisive Lions Test of the 1974 tour – a match that degenerated into one of the most notorious dockyard brawls in rugby history, with both sides throwing more haymakers than passes. Fifteen years ago, England came visiting and experienced something similar on a night when Jon Callard came within an inch of being scalped and Tim Rodber, the Northampton loose forward, was dismissed for aiming a flurry of punches at an opponent. Seconds before, he had said to the referee: "For Christ's sake, what do you have to do to get sent off around here?" It was, to be sure, an unfortunate question.
Those 15-rounders were fought out at the old Boet Erasmus Stadium, however. Yesterday, Port Elizabeth unveiled a spanking new venue named after one of the great conciliators of modern history. To say there was nothing conciliatory about the home side would be one of the understatements of the age, for within seconds of the kick-off the Southern Kings tackles were flying in thick and fast, hard and high, early and late. The Lions were rattled, massively. Indeed, it took them the entire opening period to sort themselves out, and even by the end of it they were at sixes and sevens.
Certainly, they were lucky to reach the break all square at 3-3, Van der Westhuyzen's penalty in the second minute having been cancelled out by O'Gara at the back end of the half. With the Southern Kings scrum-half Francois Hougaard working furiously at the heels of a pack who acquitted themselves well in all departments except the set-piece, and the hooker Derick Kuun making a pest of himself in the loose in close cahoots with Mbiyozo, the tourists were on the back foot far longer than anticipated. Van der Westhuyzen missed a couple of penalty chances, while the lock Marco Wentzel, who played for Leicester last season, almost created a try for Human. Only a wonderful saving tackle from O'Gara kept the line intact.
If the Lions had more about them after the restart, it was because the likes of Nathan Hines, playing out of position on the blind-side flank, had grown thoroughly sick of being smacked around. After a calming penalty from O'Gara on 44 minutes, the big Australian-born forward showed both aggression and sleight of hand to launch the attack leading to Monye's try, awarded after the video replay just about showed him grounding the ball legally ahead of the fumbling Matt Turner.
O'Gara then hit a post with as long-range shot before converting the penalty try, which resulted from Andrew Sheridan's comprehensive dismantling of Dean Greyling at a driving Lions scrum. It was a sure sign of the efficiency of the tourists' set-piece power and organisation. Unfortunately, the raw physical power required to draw the sting from 15 pumped-up South Africans around the field was noticeably lacking. Unless the problem is addressed quickly, the Test match in Durban could be a painful experience in more ways than one.
Scorers: Southern Kings: Try Mbiyozo; Penalty Van der Westhuyzen. British and Irish Lions: Tries Monye, penalty; Conversions O'Gara 2; Penalties O'Gara 2.
Southern Kings: T Mangweni; W Human (M Stick, 57), F Welsh (B Fortuin, 9-18), D Barry, M Turner; J Van der Westhuyzen, F Hougaard (J Fowles, 41); J Engels (D Du Preez, 41-54), D Kuun (capt), R Vermeulen (D Greyling, 14), R Skeate, M Wentzel, S Tyibilika (D Van Schalkwyk, 69), M Mbiyozo, D Nell.
British and Irish Lions: K Earls (Ireland); U Monye (England), R Flutey (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland), L Fitzgerald (Ireland); J Hook (Wales), M Blair (Scotland); A Sheridan (England), R Ford (Scotland), E Murray (Scotland), S Shaw (England), D O'Callaghan (Ireland, capt), N Hines (Scotland), J Worsley (England), A Powell (Wales). Replacements: A Jones (Wales) for Murray, 10; R O'Gara (Ireland) for Hook, 16; S Williams (Wales) for Monye, 67; M Rees (Wales) for Ford, 67.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
The number of games the Southern Kings had played before facing the British and Irish Lions in Port Elizabeth yesterday.