South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Durban, June 20
Lions fall agonisingly short in Durban
June 20, 2009
John Smit scored the Springboks' first try
© Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions fell agonisingly short of achieving their goal of victory in the first Test against South Africa at Kings Park in Durban, losing 26-21 to a Springbok side that let slip a 26-7 lead in the second-half.
The Lions were comprehensively outplayed by a heavyweight South African pack over the opening hour, with tries for skipper John Smit and openside flanker Heinrich Brussow, but benefited in the latter stages from a naïve series of replacements from South African coach Peter de Villiers.
Tom Croft scored a try in either half for the Lions, the first laid on by the outstanding centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll, and the second giving the Lions renewed hope after the Springboks had removed Smit, Jean de Villiers, Bakkies Botha, scrum-half Fourie du Preez and excellent fly-half Ruan Pienaar. Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips scored a third for the tourists as their performance built to the heights that fans had hoped for, as they carried an unbeaten record in to the game, but the sands of time were against them.
Their excellent second-half performance will provide plenty of heart for the squad, but there are several major worries for coach Ian McGeechan. His forwards were dominated in the scrum and picked off with ease at the lineout during an opening burst from the Springboks that threatened for a time to produce a rout of embarrassing proportions.
The Lions endured a terrible start, fly-half Stephen Jones missing an early shot at goal before the fearsome Springbok lock duo of Victor Matfield and Botha made their presence felt, stealing Lee Mears' first lineout.
Pienaar fired a perfectly-judged kick in behind the Lions, Monye and Byrne getting in each other's way before conceding a five-metre scrum. With pace and precision that made a mockery of the pre-match thoughts that the hosts may be undercooked, the Springboks worked left from the lineout, with Pienaar carrying before du Preez fired the ball out to Smit whose perfectly timed run from deep saw him power through the Lions defence to score.
Pienaar added the extras, before the Lions thought that they had a try of their own. With Steyn dropping the restart, the ball was worked left from Jones, with O'Driscoll finding Ugo Monye haring up on the outside. The Lions wing powered over in the corner, only for Springbok centre Jean de Villiers to pull off an immaculate save by getting his arm under the ball.
With the scoreboard showing their early dominance, the Springbok forwards decided to answer some of the commentators who had speculated at a Lions' whitewash at the scrum. Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira decimated the Lions front-row on their own ball following a supposed knock-on by Spies - winning a penalty as Phil Vickery began a half to forget.
Pienaar landed the kick before the tourists again provided another burst for naught. Wallace was put in to a hole by Phillips, the openside streaking clear before an excellent cover tackle. Phillips lost the ball at the next ruck however, with Habana breaking away. A wonderful tackle by Gethin Jenkins rescued the Lions, Monye and Croft combining to win a penalty for holding on. Jones' kick was wide again - six points going begging as the World Champions dominated the early stages.
Steyn showed his cannon boot with a long-range penalty following a late hit by Croft, taking the home side 13 points clear, but the Lions struck back thanks to their most potent combination on tour thus far. From quick distribution by Jones, Roberts straightened through the Springboks line, offloading to O'Driscoll. The Irish centre darted away from several cover tackles before popping the ball to Croft who made no mistake from a couple of metres out.
Jones slotted the conversion before the Lions had a try ruled out for crossing in midfield. Pienaar took an opportunity to extend the home side's lead when Vickery was again crushed at the scrum and added a further three points before half-time when Tommy Bowe was pinged for holding on.
The Lions returned to the field looking for a fresh start, but found nothing other than further humiliation awaiting them. Mears saw his first throw of the half picked off by Matfield, Vickery gave away a mindless penalty and the Springboks rolled a maul fully 20 metres and won a penalty from Lions skipper Paul O'Connell.
With the scent of blood in the air the ball was sent in to the corner, the Springboks exuding confidence. From the lineout the ball was again handed to the forwards, who continued to bury their opponents in red. In an effortless maul they powered across the Lions' line, Brussow emerging from the mass of bodies to earn the congratulations of his team-mates.
In a stark contrast to the fortunes of the forwards another slashing break from the axis of O'Driscoll and Roberts set the Lions on the path to the try-line. The ball was carried forward well by Wallace before Phillips used his power to burst from the fringes. His long arms looked certain to reach the line only for a vital intervention from Botha to force a knock-on.
With the Springboks looking increasingly at ease in conceding penalties close to their line and referee Lawrence reluctant to brandish yellow, the Lions exploited a little bit of lackadaisical play for Croft to score his second try of the game. With the ball retention improving minute by minute Phillips and O'Driscoll linked to push Croft in to a hole and the rangy England flanker made no mistake.
With Peter de Villiers having withdrawn his big guns the Lions took hold of the closing stages. Their performance was transformed as they looked quick, sharp and aware of their support runners. The introduction of Adam Jones and Matthew Rees shored up the scrum well. Monye saw his second chance at a try go begging when he knocked on with the line at his mercy, but the tourists soon had their third and a famous victory was tantalisingly close.
The pressure built phases by phase, the Springboks conceding penalty after penalty. With the Lions taking the quick tap their momentum was growing. The ball was kept close to the ruck and scrum-half Phillips threw himself across the line to score. With the atmosphere inside Kings Park close to rapture, the Lions pressed for the vital score. Their efforts were committed but the clock was against them - the Springboks securing a vital penalty to close out the game.
South Africa: Francois Steyn (Sharks); JP Pietersen (Sharks), Adi Jacobs (Sharks), Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Bryan Habana (Bulls); Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Fourie du Preez (Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), John Smit (Sharks, captain), Bakkies Botha (Bulls), Victor Matfield (Bulls), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Pierre Spies (Bulls)
Replacements: Gurthro Steenkamp (Bulls), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Andries Bekker (Stormers), Danie Rossouw (Bulls), Enrico Januarie (Stormers), Jacque Fourie (Lions), Morne Steyn (Bulls)
British & Irish Lions: Lee Byrne (Ospreys & Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys & Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster & Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Ugo Monye (Harlequins & England); Stephen Jones (Scarlets & Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys & Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Lee Mears (Bath & England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps & England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Paul O'Connell (Munster & Ireland, captain), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers & England), David Wallace (Munster & Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster & Ireland)
Replacements: Matthew Rees (Scarlets & Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster & Ireland), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers & England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster & Ireland), Rob Kearney (Leinster & Ireland)
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referess: Stuart Dickinson (Australia), Vinny Munro (New Zealand) Television Match Official: Christophe Berdos (France)
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.