The Lions found their way over the South African line on six occasions in Durban last weekend and while they scored three tries, they let three others slip through their fingers and failed to win the game as a result.
That amounts to a major missed opportunity and, with the Springboks certain to be stronger in defence in this afternoon's Test match, it will be very difficult for the tourists to turn things around and set up a decider next Saturday – especially with the altitude in Pretoria having an effect on the nature of the contest.
People who know most about playing rugby on the highveld say it is best to approach a game like a series of 100-metre sprints: you play hard in short snaps, slow things down, catch your breath and then go again. Unfortunately for the Lions, they have decided on a very different approach based on multiphase play and long periods of ball retention. I see a couple of problems with this. Firstly, it's an exhausting way of operating at altitude. Secondly, it places a big premium on quality set-piece ball, and if the Lions struggle at the line-out, the whole strategy will be undermined.
Still, they are committed to playing as they did last week. The only significant tactical change they could have made for this match would have been to turn to Ronan O'Gara and his accurate kicking from hand, but with O'Gara standing as deep as he does, the phase-play option would no longer have been available. For better or for worse, they will seek to run the Boks off their feet.
If the Lions are to win today, they will need to be absolutely rock-solid at both scrum and line-out. The scrum will be fascinating. All the talk in the build-up to last week's Test was about how dominant the Lions would be at the set piece and to what extent the referee would reward them for that dominance. Quite often in these circumstances, the opposition react by placing more emphasis on their own performance at the scrum and end up being more effective than expected. The Springboks certainly had the best of the scrum psychology, out-thinking the Lions and making poor Phil Vickery's life an absolute misery.
"Beast" Mtawarira is a strong, aggressive prop. Very strong and aggressive, in fact. But he's not the most sophisticated loose-head prop in the world – he's a bit of a one-trick pony, to be honest – and I was surprised by the Lions' failure to handle what he and the other Springbok front-rowers, Bismarck du Plessis and John Smit, were throwing at them. At times, it seemed all the pressure was being heaped on Vickery alone, and it made me wonder what Gethin Jenkins and Lee Mears were doing in there. I'm not surprised the Lions coaches have made some changes in this area.
By promoting Simon Shaw (pictured) to the second row, the Lions have introduced their best scrummaging lock to the equation. It makes sense. Unfortunately, there is usually an increase in the number of line-outs at altitude, and as those of us working with the Boks at the last World Cup discovered in the final against England, Shaw is not the best in this area. As the Lions need a reliable supply of first-phase possession to feed their game plan, the signs are not terribly good.
I believe they will need a minimum 90 per cent return from scrum and line-out to stand a chance of victory. On the face of it, last week's statistics were good from the Lions' perspective: 68 per cent possession against 32 per cent for the Boks. However, the Boks turned over five Lions line-outs and won four penalties off them at the scrums. That's nine pieces of prime first-phase possession the tourists needed, but didn't get. If they don't address those shortcomings, they will be in for a long afternoon on the veld.
This is not to say the Lions' situation is hopeless. The Boks' midfield defence was pretty poor in Durban: Adrian Jacobs failed to make a single meaningful tackle, while Ruan Pienaar is no one's idea of a big-hit merchant in the outside-half channel. However, Schalk Burger will make a massive difference to the South Africans' defensive mindset. Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll have been terrific in the Lions midfield and I expect them to ask questions again this afternoon, but with Burger flying around the place, those clean line breaks will be a little harder to come by.
One last thing: I don't expect the Boks to make the same ridiculous substitutions that helped the Lions find a way back into the game last time out. For reasons best known to himself, the Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, left his side to play much of the last quarter with two loose-head props, two middle jumpers, two blind-side flankers, two No 10s and two outside centres. To say the very least, the home side were not great off the bench. Surely, they won't make the same mistake again.Reuse content