Royal XV 25-37 British & Irish Lions, Royal Bafokeng Stadium
Victorious Lions fail to impress
Graham Jenkins at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium
May 30, 2009

A win is a win but if the Lions were hoping to lay down a marker ahead of their Test series with South Africa they failed. This was a narrow escape from what would have been a crippling blow to their aspirations.

An error-strewn performance from the elite tourists in their tour opener highlighted the fact that there is plenty of work to do over the coming weeks ahead of the first Test clash with the Springboks on June 20. It was scrappy at best and they were a little lucky to escape with the win.

The scoreboard flattered Ian McGeechan's team who were made to work hard for their win by an invitational side, that had very little Super 14 experience in its ranks, and which showed great endeavour and some nice touches with No.8 Jonathan Mokuena delivering a man of the match performance.

The Royal XV's efforts were rewarded with three fine tries but they ran out of steam as the Lions conjured a late turnaround with tries from Lee Byrne, Alun Wyn-Jones and Ronan O'Gara to add to a first half score for Tommy Bowe.

The Lions 2009 bow was very much a low-key affair - only 12,000 of the 42,000 seats here at the Royal Bakofeng Stadium were full with the Super 14 Final clash between the Bulls and the Chiefs down the road in Pretoria, and the FA Cup Final obviously drawing the eye of this sports-mad nation.

It was a shame because this is a decent modern stadium, surrounded by the platinum mines that have made the area's name, and will no doubt be a focal point come this year's Confederations Cup and next year's Fifa World Cup. The weather too played its part with warm sunshine and blue skies gracing the occasion but sadly the marketing of this game failed to lure the fans in any significant number. Does that reflect a decreasing amount of affection for the Lions? I doubt it.

Two enforced changes on the morning of the game would not have helped preparations

There was plenty of adventure from the Lions, running from deep, creative lines but they were some way off the finished article.

The mistakes came thick and fast in the opening period and although the tourists improved after the break it was not much better - wild passes, overthrown lineouts, dropped balls, knock-ons, running into touch, passing into touch, losing ball in contact - you name it, we saw it. There were 14 turnovers alone in the first half and that will cripple any creativity.

Ireland youngster Keith Earls, making his debut in the famous red jersey, had an opening 40 minutes to forget - dropping a high ball in his own 22 and failing to hold a pass as the Lions closed in on their hosts' line.

The massive physical battle did not emerge but the battle of breakdown was still fierce. Both sides showed that they wanted to play but the Lions reverted back to a tighter, forward-driven game in the second half and slowly ground the Royal XV down.

The Lions' report card will read 'must do better' and they can comfort themselves with the fact that there were not many people here to see their faltering display. The Royal XV can be proud of their display, they held their own at the breakdown and if a couple of first half opportunities had gone their way they may have been out of sight.

In terms of positives for the Lions, centre Jamie Roberts underlined the strength we know he has with some powerful runs and Lee Byrne gave an accomplished performance from fullback while Shane Wiliams showed enough fizz to offer hope of more to come while tackling above his weight as ever. The boot of O'Gara was also a reliable factor that the Lions will surely rely on heavily in the weeks to come.

In time they will be thankful for such a testing fixture and it will provide more positives in the long run than a 60 or 70 point rout of their opposition.

The team that played second fiddle to the Super 14 Final in the headlines all week will be happy to remain on the undercard in tomorrow's papers.

Now, where can I watch that Super 14 final?


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