What a fantastic turnaround by the Lions. At half-time I was seriously worried, they hadn’t really fired a shot in the first 40 minutes and I have always thought that there could be no way back from a defeat in the first Test.
They came back out of the tunnel a much more focused team, kicked better and started putting phases together and we started to notice that South Africa aren’t very disciplined and organised in defence.
Finally, the Lions got big Courtney Lawes and Jack Conan running at them, while Maro Itoje — the Lions man of the match by a distance — was immense. Although there were plenty of dramas in the second half, I felt confident of a Lions win from about 25 minutes in. There had been a sea change.
Owen Farrell and Conor Murray are pretty good players to bring on with all their experience
Maro Itoje (L) was absolutely immense for Lions and was their man of the match by a distance
This Springbok team might be World Champions but they have had no opportunity to develop since the Rugby World Cup 2019. They have had no Test rugby, looked vulnerable and short of rugby but made some bad calls as well.
The game was still there for the winning when they brought off Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard. Why would you do that?
I can’t claim to have been quite so confident at the break, though! After all the build-up, excitement and hype, it was a desperately disappointing first half, no sort of spectacle and some way short of the Lions game against South Africa A which combined fire and fury with real skill.
We should not underestimate nerves, with so many Lions making debuts and that was behind the rash of three early penalties given away by Tom Curry.
Tom Curry (centre) was aware of the need to be aggressive but he needs more discipline
Yes, he needed to get into the Boks faces and lead the battle from No7 and Curry was aware of that, but the margins are so small that he needed to be much more disciplined.
Pollard helped himself to two successful kicks at goal from Curry offences and then another Englishman, Elliot Daly, coughed up another penalty and another three points.
It was all rather reminiscent of England in the Six Nations and makes you wonder what the problem is. I thought the calls were sound, so it wasn’t the Australian referee Nic Berry.
What struck me is that apart from some good early lineout takes from Lawes, the Lions failed to launch him and Conan into the Boks with those big barnstorming runs and collisions that can lift the intensity of the team. Nor was Lawes able to pull off his trademark hits which have the same effect.
Lukhanyo Am launched an absolutely huge hit on Elliot Daly, which was an entirely legal tackle
South Africa enjoyed one when Lukhanyo Am piled into Daly, entirely legally I would add.
It was hard work for the Lions. Most critics rate that starting Boks front row as inferior to their Bomb Squad replacements but the Lions had no joy against them and, after a good start, the Lions lineout started to splutter.
And minds started to wander. What on earth was Luke Cowan-Dickie doing with that panicky short crooked throw to the front which was rightly pinged? And why was he laughing and smiling about it afterwards? It was naive play and cost valuable field position.
Factor in a couple of missed penalty kicks and it was a miserable opening 40 minutes for the Lions who could count themselves lucky to turn around only 12-3 down.
It was a miserable first 40 minutes for the Lions and they were lucky to only be nine down
Straight after the break things were different. Lawes and Conan played a bigger role. Cowan-Dickie was quickly able to make amends with a well-worked lineout rumble and it was game back on again. The Lions were crisper and sharper.
The Boks are always dangerous, though, and in quick succession there were two huge TMO calls, one South Africa try disallowed, one allowed. Both were spot on and, given all the pre-match publicity — row if you like — about the last-minute appointment of Marius Jonker as TMO, the officials coped well. They were under as much pressure as the players.
The Lions maintained their concentration, their kicking game improved and the boot of Dan Biggar worked well with three penalties, the last of which took the Lions into the lead for the first time.
Hamish Watson could really have had no complaints if he’d have been shown a yellow card
Then came that call on Hamish Watson, only a penalty for a clear leg lift and potentially dangerous. It looked a probable yellow, but a simple penalty was the call and Pollard missed the kick. I would say that’s the one call the Boks could reasonably argue against. Watson would have been saying a prayer when it went upstairs. Yellow cards and even the occasional red have been given for less.
The big decisions kept coming and officialdom got it right with Cheslin Kolbe’s knock-on in the build-up to what looked like a South Africa try. Again spot on, and then the Lions reasserted themselves.
Owen Farrell and Conor Murray are good players to have coming on to close out a game and that’s what they did. A terrific win that should be briefly celebrated but the job is only half done. Expect a big reaction from the Boks next Saturday and the Lions must match them.
After a sluggish first half, the Lions finally got the likes of Jack Conan (centre) running