The Second Test was always going to be critical and even more so now for South Africa after the Lions narrowly won last Saturday. Since their first meeting in 1891, the Lions have only won four times against South Africa in thirteen series, with the last win being in 1997!!
The Lions announced their team on Tuesday before South Africa announcing theirs, maybe in reaction to having had a media leak of the previous weeks’ side, or maybe this was more “mind games” or simply a statement of intent. Either way, both sides showed minor changes and if anything, “beefed” themselves up for what everyone expected to be a hugely physical encounter and a close fought game. The Lions Teams can be seen here: 2nd Test Lions Team and the Springboks team here with changes shown for both sides: 2nd Test Teams.
There’s was nothing in it between these two sides leading into this game and yet there was everything to play for, a win for Lions meant the Series was won, a win for South Africa and it goes to the wire in a final Test game. Interestingly to note that the combined score in the “two-Test” games (including the South Africa “A” game) prior to this game were: First Half – South Africa 29 – Lions 6, Second Half South Africa 5 – Lions 29.
The question of whether history would weigh heavy on either of their shoulders or inspire them to do great things was answered & the bench or finishers definitely played their part, especially for South Africa.
The first half of this game was a stop-start affair and after forty minutes there were only twenty-odd minutes showing on the game time clock. Neither side seemed able to settle or to find more than a few phases of play or establish real dominance. The Lions seemed to be trying a new tactic by kicking shorter over the advancing Springbok defence, but it didn’t pay off and where previously they had won the aerial battles, they made mistakes and couldn’t gather momentum. Both sides conceded penalties and the halftime score was a reflection of this with the Lions going in with a slender lead at 9 – 6.
It had been an absolutely ferocious battle and once again the physicality was frightening, cumulating in the South African winger Cheslin Kolbe chasing a high ball only to take Conor Murray (Lions Scrum Half) out in the air, many saw this as a red card and he was probably very lucky only to receive a yellow. The resultant melee saw some pushing and shoving, and there may still be further repercussions from this for both sides, as some footage indicates players taking this too far.
The second half was an entirely different affair, with South Africa dominating from the start, they were absolutely ruthless, and the tactical substitutions they made just reinforced their highly effective game plan of winning the set pieces and bullying the Lions physically.
The Lions just didn’t seem to have any answers and couldn’t move away from their approach, which just wasn’t working. They continued to lose the aerial battles and struggled to compete around the pitch and especially at set-pieces.
South Africa scored twenty-one unanswered points in this second half and the World Champions are probably now in pole position to clinch the series, given the manner and dominance of their second-half display and they certainly look back to their menacing best. The Lions would not score again, and this was only the sixth time they have been held try-less in their history.
For me, several Lions players just didn’t play like they have been and made some uncharacteristic mistakes, especially in the back three of Stuart Hogg, Duhan van de Merwe and Anthony Watson, who all seemed unable to win the ball in 50/50 situations in the air. South Africa are unlikely to change tack now and will be bringing more of the same for what is going to be a fascinating winner takes all final test next Saturday.
The selections of both sides may yet be influenced by the match citing commissioner who will be reviewing a number of playing incidents, in a week that was dominated by “the Rassie Rant”*. Maybe this had some impact on this game, as almost every controversial decision was agonised over by referee Ben O'Keeffe, his assistants and the television match official Marius Jonker, but there was no denying South Africa’s deserved win here.
Either way, I wouldn’t like to be in the Lions’ Coach, Warren Gatland’s shoes right now, he will have to make some big decisions in his final selection, and he may decide to really roll the dice – we will see.
It’s down to the wire now.
*During the week Rassie Erasmus the South African Director of Rugby released a 62-minute video analysing and commenting on a number of incidents that occurred in the 1st Test, where he felt South Africa were treated unfairly and that the officials had made wrong decisions.