South Africa 26-21 British & Irish Lions, Durban, June 20
Lions left to rue missed opportunities
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 20, 2009
Lions centre Jamie Roberts reflects on his side's narrow defeat in the opening Test clash with South Africa © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions' hopes of an historic series victory over South Africa took a near fatal blow with a narrow 26-21 defeat in their opening clash at Kings Park in Durban.
In such high-intensity clashes you must take your chances and the Lions failed to do so and paid the price. A brave second half comeback saw the tourists out-gun the hosts three tries to two but they were left to rue a slow start and a series of butchered scoring opportunities.
As a result they face having to secure back-to-back matches at altitude in Pretoria and Johannesburg in the coming weeks - a tough ask but there was enough fight in the Lions today to suggest they are not completely out of this yet.
It was all too easy for the Springboks in for the first fifty minutes as the Lions struggled in every aspect of the game. A majestic 40m driving maul early in the second half that eventually led to their second try best summed up their domination. The Lions were disorganised and dispirited and appeared to have no answer.
It was not supposed to be like this. South Africa were the ones coming off a seven-month lay-off with many of their players not having played at all for several weeks. Surely if anyone was going to appear rusty it was them? But no. Instead it was the Lions who looked short of game time.
The scrum, a reliable weapon for the Lions throughout the tour to date, was bullied into submission with man of the match Tendai Mtawarira living up to his nickname of Beast by totally dominating the Lions' Phil Vickery. The tourists had opted for a more mobile pack in the hope of keeping their South African counterparts on the move but it was they who were moving - mainly backwards.
The Lions' woe at the scrum, that saw them lose four against the head, was matched at the lineout where they lost three on their own throw while turnovers again soared into double figures to raise questions about the breakdown once again.
The Lions will no doubt point the finger at referee Bryce Lawrence. The two management teams met with him earlier this week to clarify a series of issues but it appears the message did not get through. The penalty count killed the Lions and was perhaps the real reason they lost this game - not the missed chances.
The increasingly impressive Springboks flanker Heinrich Brussow terrorised the Lions as he did for the Cheetahs a fortnight ago and his impressive work at the breakdown was rewarded with a try in his first start for his country. Critically for the Lions the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Alun Wyn Jones went missing in action while fly-half Stephen Jones failed to maintain his high goal-kicking standards with two missed penalties.
The Lions' tactical kicking game again failed to provide them with any impetus and simply offered the Springboks countless opportunities to run the ball back. Their cause was not helped by an injury to fullback Lee Byrne. The pivotal Welshman appeared to tweak something in the warm-up but was ultimately cleared to play. However, he never looked right and the introduction of Rob Kearney went some way to giving the Lions more direction.
The Springboks were guilty of lifting their foot off the gas from the hour mark and allowed the Lions back into the game. It is not a mistake they will make again.
The introduction of Adam Jones for Vickery early in the second half immediately shored up the scrum and gave the Lions the stable platform that had been missing. Suddenly they looked like a potent force again and surely Jones will be rewarded when it comes to naming the side for the second Test.
The Lions may well have a formidable backline but without the ball - as they were for much of the opening period - they pose no threat at all. The wingers in particular saw precious little ball and even less space. That changed in the second half as they found their composure and rediscovered their belief.
Jamie Roberts underlined his undoubted class with another outstanding display - seemingly breaking the gain line on every occasion - and he was ably supported by Brian O'Driscoll. The ease at which these two cut into the Springboks' defence offers them plenty of cause for hope.
Of all the missed chances, it is perhaps those that fell to winger Ugo Monye that will be hardest to re-live over the coming days. Twice he was guilty of running with the ball in the wrong hand as he was first denied by some great defence and the Television Match Official and then a superb tackle from Morne Steyn who dislodged the ball.
South Africa did just enough to halt the Lions' momentum with the return of skipper John Smit galvanising his side. He had set the tone for the first half display with his side's first try but made way when the Boks looked to have the game won. Fortunately for South Africa an injury to replacement Deon Carstens allowed him to return - and just in time to halt wave after wave of Lions pressure.
What will be most frustrating for McGeechan and co is that when the Lions finally found their game they looked dangerous but by then they had given themselves a mountain to climb. They had best keep those hiking boots handy.