“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy”, wrote Sun Tzu in the Art of War and so it proved for the British and Irish Lions in the first battle of three in Cape Town. For forty minutes the Lions were blitzed by a South African defensive bombardment – the Springboks physically dominant. Come full-time, the game had been decisively transformed.
It was a remarkable turnaround for in the first half the Lions looked badly undercooked, unable to confront South Africa’s physicality; unable to get outside of the Springboks’ blitz defence. They had made just one clean break in attack; Elliot Daly had been chopped in half by Lukhanyo Am.
The contrast in the second half was remarkable – at every key second half battleground the Lions were the better team. This was the Springboks’ blueprint used against them: defensive line speed, territorial dominance. In a game of kicks, the Lions were outstanding, kicking to compete, chasing hard to contest in the air. South Africa struggled, conceding territory and possession. The Springboks first half set-piece supremacy was emphatically over-turned.
“The message at half-time was that we were still in the arm-wrestle,” said Warren Gatland. “Let’s keep our patience, we will get chances, don’t try and force things. It was about our game management.
“As the second half went on we got stronger and stronger. We started to get some dominance in our forward carries. The scrum stabilised and we got a bit of dominance there. Once we started to take them through some phases and got on the front foot, they conceded a number of penalties.”
The turning point came moments after the second half restart: a kickable penalty for the Lions in South Africa’s 22, and a decision to be made. The margin, at that stage, was nine points – the temptation to narrow it by three would have been strong. But Alun Wyn Jones pointed to the corner.
Such a moment had been discussed in the changing rooms moments earlier. The Lions needed an impetus, a statement of physical intent. Dan Biggar found the five-metre, Luke Cowan-Dickie found his Courtney Lawes and from form there it was a mauling, eleven players joining in all; Cowan-Dickie able to wriggle over.
From there the Lions rarely relinquished the momentum. For all the talk of South Africa’s World Cup-winning “Bomb Squad”, it was the Lions bench that made the telling impact. The replacement South African front row’s half-time arrival meant that by the time the game exploded in the final quarter their wires had long been cut, Mako Vunipola exorcising his own personal ghosts against Frans Malherbe.
Having kept the ball infield for most of the game the Lions backed their fitness and experience to make the difference as the game ebbed. They look in supreme physical condition – Steve Tandy’s defence has not conceded a try after the 53rd minute since arriving in South Africa.
At the heart of it all was Maro Itoje. Even as his teammates struggled in the first half the unrelenting Itoje was inexorable. Gatland is a harsh critic: he picked out one false moment when the lock was slightly too high in the carry and stood up by Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert’s combined might. It is a good job Gatland’s memory is sharp, because he’d have struggled to find a second – Itoje was otherwise supreme w
“I thought Maro was immense,” said Gatland, who also reserved special praise for Courtney Lawes. The blindside had been a bold selection ahead of Tadhg Beirne – who was excellent in limited minutes from the bench – but grew from a steady start to produce a decisive second half performance, hurdling out of tackles like a great steeplechaser and adding the physical edge desired by his head coach.
The Lions turnaround was never clearer than in the final 90-second passage. South Africa, with one last opportunity five points in arrears, had claimed their restart inside the Lions 22 and prepared for a final assault.
But back they were forced, driven from the door in 12 faultless defensive phases by the Lions. In the end it was Itoje, inevitably, with the last intervention, wrestling the ball away some 20 metres back from where the kick-off had been claimed - him and the bionic man Jones still leading the defensive stand after eighty brutal minutes in the engine room.
It is a shame that we must also mention the TMO. The pre-match furore over South African Marius Jonker’s appointment placed him in an unenviable position. It is impossible to speculate but had neutrality been assured then you suspect Willie Le Roux may not have been ruled offside, while Hamish Watson was fortunate to remain on the pitch after his tip tackle on the full-back.
Nienaber and Kolisi refused to blame the officials, nor the coronavirus outbreak that left a host of key names in isolation ahead of this First Test. Discipline is an obvious work-on, while they looked a side short of a viable Plan B once their physical might was quelled.
The Lions are readying themselves for a reaction. It would be a great surprise if South Africa are so tentative or passive should they establish physical supremacy again. Precious little was seen of Cheslin Kolbe, who struggled in the air; Faf de Klerk was atypically subdued. At times in the first half they had the Lions against the ropes but did not look able to press home their advantage, perhaps fearful that a lack of cohesion might lead to a loose moment and allow the Lions swift passage back into the contest.
“In moments like these you have to enjoy them, they don’t come around very often,” said a typically level-headed Jones. “The caveat to that is that we are only a third done. That message has already been planted. It is a time for everyone to take stock as we are and get ready to move on to next week.”
“They will be hurt from this because they are an incredibly proud nation and world champions,” continued Gatland. “Next week is going to be even bigger and tougher.”
They may have won the first battle but the Lions are bracing for war.
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