The moment that South Africa revealed their lineup for the South Africa “A” side to play the Lions on Wednesday this week, the Lions knew they were in for a real test. Bar one or two names (such as Siya Kolisi their Captain who was out due to positive Covid tests) the South African team could have been a full test side. The side contained no less than eighteen of the players that represented South Africa when they won the World Cup in 2019, with 522 caps between them. See here for the full squad: South Africa A Squad
This was always going to be a challenging game and with only ten days before the first official Test and just one more warm-up game to go, it was probably exactly what the Lions needed.
With Covid keeping some of their key players off the paddock for the last 20 months there has been chatter about the South Africans being undercooked and not yet ready to play at this level. This match completely showed this not to be the case.
The Lions were forced into a couple of last-minute changes themselves. Josh Adams, was replaced by Liam Williams. This meant Anthony Watson moved to the wing and Williams coming in at full-back. Dan Biggar pulled out with an ankle strain and was replaced by Owen Farrell at fly-half. I don’t think these changes had a major effect on the outcome of this game, as it’s possible that both Williams and Farrell could be in the starting line-up come the first actual Test match.
The tone of this game was set early on as South Africa arrived with huge ferocity at every opportunity, their physicality was frightening at some points and the Lions looked a bit off-kilter as they were smashed into at every play. South Africa seemed to win almost every collision, at the counter rucks and the breakdowns, they showed no mercy. The Lions will need to look at this aspect of their game and be faster and more aggressive, if they are to gain vital control of this area of the game, it’s fixable and they’ll know this.
This was like a heavyweight boxing match for a majority of the first half with each side playing cautiously but South Africa landing the more telling blows and punishing the small mistakes that the Lions made. However, it was the “lightweight” South African winger Cheslin Kolbe that lit up the stage with dazzling footwork and speed to take the “A” side into a 17 -3 lead.
There was a long period of possession for the Lions after this as they battered the South African try line from close quarters, this resulted in numerous penalties against the “A” side and two yellow cards for foul play meaning that two of their players were off for ten minutes.
For me, the Lions made the wrong call after the second yellow card. Instead of opting for a scrum, which would have tied in the “A” players and given the Lions a numerical advantage in the scrum and outside in the backs, they continued to batter the line and eventually lost the ball in contact.
At halftime, the Lions had had 63% possession and territory, but only three points to show for this, which says it all about the amazing defence the “A” side showed.
The Lions started much better in the second half, shifting the point of contact quickly and fronting up much more effectively in the contact areas and scored after four minutes to make this an enthralling and tight game to watch. They didn’t relent but couldn’t find a way through and South Africa “A” clung on for the victory. It was the first defeat for the Lions on this tour.
For the Lions, Maro Itoje, at second row, was immense and Tom Curry, at flank, played out of his skin, Owen Farrell at fly-half controlled the game well and whilst he may not start in that position come the Test games, he’s likely to be in the side. Anthony Watson, on the wing, was good, as was Liam Williams, at full-back. Williams went off for head injury assessment and was replaced by Eliot Daly, who once again showed his versatility by playing at full-back. Daly’s now played Wing, Centre, Full Back and filled in at Scrum Half so far and should either start or be in the “finishers”/replacements for the first test.
For South Africa, there were a number of players that shone. Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, who Captained the side, were both excellent in the centre. Cheslin Kolbe, on the wing, was a constant threat. Faf de Clerk at scrum-half was fizzing around and getting in the faces of the Lions, he was possibly lucky to only get a Yellow card just before half-time. Eben Etzebeth showed just why he’s considered one of the best second rows in the World. They have more in the locker and it’s going to be a big battle going forward into the Test games.
The Lions will have plenty to ponder selection wise and now have a taste of what’s to come and know that the Test games will be even more physical and demanding. The amazing return of Alun Wyn- Jones to the tour, after dislocating his shoulder against Japan, will bring even more leadership and when he features for the Lions in one of the test games, if not in all of them, he will bring even more steel to this side. Did they flatter to deceive as this article suggests, Pull the Rug
I’m not sure, but either way, it’s game on, a wounded Lion is a dangerous beast!!