At least the British and Irish Lions now know exactly where they stand after the first defeat of their 2021 expedition. Here’s a deadly reminder of the scale of the challenge that awaits them once the series proper begins at this same stage. in just over a week, with barely time to talk about many quick fixes.
If this was truly the ‘fourth test’ it would be difficult, based on this evidence, to bet against the team in green winning at least two of the other three. Of course, the Lions don’t want to reveal all of their tactical cards at this point, but the Springboks – operating under a subtly different nickname on this occasion – will also be the best for this outing following a build-up badly hit by Covid.
The big pluses for the Lions were at the front row where Wyn Jones and Kyle Sinckler both played with manhood, with Tom Curry and Josh Navidi also busy relentlessly at the bottom row. Less obvious was a constant mid-back slam and crackle where Conor Murray and Owen Farrell couldn’t inject much tempo on a night that highlighted how the Springboks will be a tough defensive nut to crack this month. -this.
That said, the Lions have never been less than fiery and courageous and remain adamant that all is not yet lost. Their opponents’ failure to score points in the second half did not go unnoticed and, after falling 17-3, the bench impact was also significant given the disruption in the 11th hour of the Warren Gatland breeding plans after Josh Adams’ partner Georgia goes into labor. with the couple’s first child. The Wales wing, earning a footnote in Lions folklore, has stepped down from the day’s squad to attend the birth via Zoom, Anthony Watson moving to the wing and Liam Williams drafted from the back.
With Dan Biggar also absent with a slight ankle sprain, giving Farrell an unexpected start at age 10, the Lions could have used unfamiliarity as an excuse if their opponents hadn’t already done it for themselves. Aside from a lonely test against Georgia, the best South Africans haven’t played together since winning the World Cup in Japan at the end of 2019.
Some things, however, never change. The sheer power of the not-so-disguised Boks with and without the ball was still firmly intact and the first quarter was comfortably the darkest 20 minutes of the tour. Only a good cover tackle from Watson denied Sbu Nkosi a try in the left corner but, with the advantage played, the South Africans still came away with three points on a penalty from Morne Steyn.
After 12 minutes the margin was already in double digits, with Farrell’s attempted kick being pushed back by Eben Etzebeth before Allende’s Damian sidelined Nkosi for a long-distance score. The worst was yet to come, with a pained-looking Williams leaving for a head injury assessment and being replaced by Elliot Daly.
The most encouraging news was that the Lions’ scrum was holding up, with Jones particularly improving his test start prospects on a loose head. A penalty from Farrell also closed the gap slightly, but it was only a temporary reprieve. After 32 minutes, a slightly loose clearance from Daly fell to Cheslin Kolbe who assuredly interposed between Louis Rees-Zammit and Chris Harris and sidelined his captain Lukhanyo Am for a brilliant try, expertly transformed by the metronomist. Steyn.
At 17-3, the Lions urgently needed a break. One of them duly materialized when Faf de Klerk received a yellow card for a head-down tackle that involved, at best, only one of his arms, but hopeful calls for a red went unanswered. Then, a minute before half-time, the home side were still exhausted when a series of team collective infractions led Marco Van Staden to follow his scrum-half into the trash.
Despite a two-man advantage, the Lions couldn’t force Jones at close range before the break, but the same player had more success within four minutes of the restart. Another penalty from Farrell reduced the deficit further, but the South Africans were now back to full strength and after a stretch Rees-Zammit was slightly short of scoring in the left corner towards the end of the final quarter, he didn’t there was to be no final frills.
At least there are Lions reinforcements on hand, with Irish hooker Ronan Kelleher coming in cover with the return of Alun Wyn Jones, who Gatland is likely to restore as skipper ahead of Murray assuming the shoulder of the lock resists its early days. training in South Africa.
“There’s a good chance Alun Wyn will return to his job as tour captain and I think Conor will be pretty happy with that,” Gatland said. “We’re just going to make the best decision for the team. If Alun Wyn not only miraculously returns but leads his pride in the Lions to series victory, he will truly be one of the great comebacks of the era.