When the teams were announced for the first test we knew that we were going to see something special. Both teams were packed with skill, pace, intelligence and brut force. It had all the makings of a titanic North, South clash. By kick-off at 5 pm on Saturday afternoon, the anticipation amongst the fans was palatable.
Straight from the first kick-off, there was a 10-minute passage of play which set the tone for the match. This was lung-busting stuff with both sides tearing into each other, epitomised by a “tree felling” tackle on Eliot Daly by Lukhanyo Am. I was watching with friends in a crowded and noisy bar and when the passage of play ended you felt everyone drawn breath. The Game was most definitely on.
South Africa had the upper hand in the first half. The Lions struggled to find their rhythm and shape. They conceded early penalties for infringements that weren’t necessary (this is something they still need to work on this if they are going to secure a series win). However, their defence was solid, and even at this stage, it was notable that the likes of Cheslin Kolbe on the wing for South Africa just couldn't get into the game.
South Africa went in at halftime 12 – 3 up and if they'd scored first at the start of the second half, well, they could have run away with the game but the Lions, didn't allow this to happen. They started the second half determined to prove that they could live with the Boks. Following a period of set-piece power play, Luke Cowan-Dickie, at hooker, scored an early try. The Lions seemed to find the balance that had illuded them in the first half. Their fly-half Dan Biggar game management skills were at the heart of everything good that the Lions were doing.
Despite the Lions stepping up their game, the Springboks kept coming. Any misgivings about their ability to last a full game due to lack of playing time in the last 18months were dispelled. The Boks were very unlucky to have a try over-ruled by the TMO (television match official, who was the South African Marius Jonker, maybe Warren Gatland had got in his head with comments made earlier in the week). Regardless the South Africa Scrum Half Faf de Klerk scored a try and South Africa into a 17-10 lead.
It took 60 minutes of heavyweight action before the Lions finally took the lead. From this point on they slowly turned the screw forcing South Africa, to play in their own half, limiting their opportunities to get that back into the game. As they started to buckle under the pressure South Africa began to gave away penalties and with 2 minutes left Owen Farrell,
(Dan Biggar replacement) slotted the penalty which gave the Lions victory.
There were players from both sides that played “world-class” Rugby and all deserve praise, however, there are four that in my opinion deserve a particular mention for the Lions:
Maro Itoje – was just exceptional – his two crucial turnovers probably saved the day.
Alun Wyn-Jones – “Mr Unbreakable” – a full 90 minutes 20 odd days after dislocating a shoulder – Nuf said.
Courtney Lawes – “The Enforcer” – just got better and better as the game went on.
Dan Biggar – “The Ice Man” – calm, composed and calculated – his game management was needed.
The Lions rode their luck in this game but we all know that a wounded Springbok is a very, very dangerous animal. The next test is likely to be even more intense and physical. Despite their defeat, South Africa will feel they can win. The Lions will have to take their game up a gear and rule out the silly errors if they are going to claim victory in the second test this coming Saturday.
It’s all to play for.