South Africa 27-9 British & Irish Lions: Boks backlash tees up third Test decider
The Springboks showed greater power and control in the latter stages to beat the British & Irish Lions 27-9 on Saturday and level the series.
The Lions can’t say that they didn’t see this coming. All week, coach Warren Gatland has been telling his charges to expect a backlash of epic proportions.
On the day, the Boks delivered an almighty physical response. The hosts grew in stature as the game progressed. The bench, which boasted six relentless forwards, ensured that the South Africans completed an emphatic win and clawed their way back into the series.
The absence of the fans has been keenly felt on this tour. Thousands sporting green and gold, as well as red jerseys, have not occupied the areas in and around the stadiums on match days. There’s been no singing or chanting in the stands, and no cheers or jeers to punctuate each big moment.
And yet, to say this series has lacked tension, atmosphere as well an unforgettable storyline couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Covid-19 situation in the Gauteng province forced tournament organisers to move the second and third Tests to Cape Town. Violent protests and looting in parts of the country have lent substance to the narrative that these are troubled times for South Africa.
The respective coaches have added to the drama by making a series of comments and suggestions in the lead-up to the Tests.
Gatland questioned the appointment of a South African TMO ahead of the first match, suggesting that Marius Jonker would favour the hosts. Afterwards, South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said that Gatland’s comments had influenced Jonker to the point where he favoured the Lions.
Two days before the second Test, a 62-minute video analysis highlighting mistakes made by referee Nic Berry in the series-opener was leaked. Erasmus went as far as to suggest that Berry had favoured the Lions, and asked for the referee of the second fixture, Ben O’Keeffe, to treat both teams equally.
Captain Siya Kolisi echoed these sentiments on the eve of the second match, and claimed that the officials did not respect him or his team as much as they respected the Lions.
The first half of the second Test took more than an hour to complete. O’Keeffe had his hands full with two fiercely physical teams who were clearly motivated by the events in the buildup.
The Boks suffered an early setback when 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit left the field with a shoulder injury. The hosts were forced to reshuffle their back row, with the smaller, less physical Kwagga Smith coming off the bench to cover blindside flank.
The Lions left the door open for the Boks in the 23rd minute when winger Duhan van der Merwe kicked at the shins of Cheslin Kolbe and was shown a yellow card. South Africa failed to take advantage of that opening, though,
Two minutes later, Kolbe mistimed his challenge for a high ball and took Conor Murray out in the air. For eight minutes, both teams competed with 14 men.
Dan Biggar nailed several important penalties for the visitors. The Lions troubled the Boks at the lineout and used the platform to make inroads into the South African defence.
That defence was breached in the 36th minute when Robbie Henshaw won the race to the high ball and crashed over the tryline. Kolisi arrived in the nick of time to knock the ball from Henshaw’s grasp, and the chance went begging. Despite dominating for much of the half, the Lions went to the break with a slender 9-6 lead.
The Boks rectified their lineout issues early in the second half to set the platform for the first try of the match. Handré Pollard, who was under immense pressure from the Lions defence in the first stanza, found the time and space to execute a perfect cross-kick to Makazole Mapimpi. The winger claimed the catch and then swerved past a couple of defenders to finish.
Pollard missed a conversion that would have edged the Boks four points clear of the Lions. The visitors rallied, and directed a series of high-hanging kicks at Willie le Roux and the South African back three. Somehow, the hosts managed to collect the ricocheting ball and clear their lines.
Much was made about the Lions’ powerful finish in the first Test as well as the impotent showing by the Bok reserves. On this occasion, the South African Bomb Squad lived up to its name.
The forward reserves provided the impetus for a maul that took the Boks deep into Lions territory. O’Keeffe lifted his arm to signal advantage, when Faf de Klerk penetrated the Lions defence with a rolling grubber kick.
Lukhanyo Am raced towards the bouncing ball and slammed his hand downward. The TMO and the officials ruled that the try had been scored, and with the conversion the Boks moved into a commanding nine-point lead.
The Lions struggled to match the Boks at the breakdown in the final quarter, and O’Keeffe penalised the visitors heavily. When Pollard translated one of the hosts’ penalties into three points in the 71st minute, the writing was on the wall.
A monster effort by the forwards at the scrum earned the hosts a further penalty, and perhaps a psychological victory with a view to the third Test.
The Boks will feel that they have the momentum going into the decider. All the pressure will be on the Lions – after a long and taxing tour – to produce a rearguard performance for the ages.
South Africa – Tries: Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (5).
British & Irish Lions – Penalties: Dan Biggar (3).
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