It was not a classic, far from it but as befitting a British and Irish Lions series the first Test had its fair share of tension and controversy. The Lions won 22-17 but in truth, neither side excelled in what was an error-strewn and nervy affair. The Springboks barely broke sweat to take a first-half 12-3 lead as the Lions’ poor discipline let South Africa in. The second half was an altogether different proposition as the Lions forwards took control and hung on to record a famous victory in Cape Town. Courtney Lawes fully justified his selection on the blindside alongside Jack Conan at number 8 as the Lions turned the screw in the tight to leave the World Champions having to win the second Test to stay in the series.
Itoje and Etzebeth in epic battle
There were a number of crucial one on one battles that determined the outcome of this first test. The battle of the alpha males Maro Itjoe and Eben Etzebeth in the second row was immense. Etzebeth was South Africa’s talisman throughout, particularly in the first half. He was a constant menace to anyone in a red shirt, man-handling Maro Itoje in one tackle contest in the first half. But in the second half, the tables turned and it was Itoje who became the dominant figure, making a thorough nuisance of himself in the ruck and slowing South African possession. Watching these two superstars would have been worth the admission fee alone. Round two next week between these two will only get better.
Conan and Lawes the standouts
Credit must go to Warren Gatland on his selections for the first test. Courtney Lawes and Jack Conan were surprise selections but these two stood up to be counted as the Lions battled back in the second half. Conan was one of the tour’s bolters but as he has shown during his time in South Africa he has fully justified his call up. Conan was at the heart of everything good about the Lions forward battle. Time and again he took the hard hit ups and was a non-stop bundle of energy throughout. Few now will dispute his name being one of the first on the team sheet next week.
Courtney Lawes was huge for the British and Irish Lions in the second half. Rather like Conan, he was a surprise choice to start in the first Test but he fully justified his selection in a tireless performance that gave the Lions’ pack an edge over their counterparts in the second half. Lawes is an old school player in the form of rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard yards. He also adheres to a tireless work ethic of leaving no stone unturned in his preparation. Lawes almost single handily picked up his forwards and forced them onto the front foot on the hour mark. It was a true ‘Lions’ performance and a selection masterstroke from Gatland.
Lions bench makes a difference
It was always going to be a point of difference, which bench would make the bigger impact. The sight of Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe running on in the second half would have put the fear into any opposing pack. And yet Kyle Sinckler, Ken Owens and Mako Vunipola did not shift an inch in the much-vaunted scrum battle. They did the opposite dominating their illustrious rivals and putting the Lions in a position to close the game out. For Vunipola and Sinckler, this was their moment to banish the World Cup Final demons forever.
British and Irish Lions draw first blood
Blunted South Africa needed a plan B
The Springboks looked rudderless in attack and have to find a way to bring Cheslin Kolbe into their game plan. Damian de Allende was used as their sole battering rame and that was not enough. De Allende to his credit caused Dan Biggar and Elliot Daly no end of problems defensively. But de Allende was the only one who consistently got over the gain line. The electric Cheslin Kolbe spent most of his time contesting high balls and the Springbok half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard struggled to assert themselves. South Africa’s game plan is effective when they are dominant upfront as we saw in the 2019 World Cup but when the opposition fronts up as the Lions did in the second half, they were largely ineffective.
Much room for improvement for both sides
The British and Irish Lions will be understandably delighted in winning the first Test but this series is far from over. That should excite fans on both sides. The Lions barely fired a shot in attack over eighty minutes and neither did the Springboks. South Africa got on the wrong side of two TMO’s that were rightly given but they were off Lions’ mistakes and poor defence. Robbie Henshaw, another strong performer for the Lions on the night, knocked on in the last minutes of the second half, when clear with support on either side. That was the only genuine opportunity in attack for Gatland’s men.
There is so much more to come from both sides now that they have sounded each other out. It was a cagey contest full of mistakes and loose kicking. Hopefully, the quality will be much better in the second Test. Gatland will be delighted in how his team turned around a 12-3 deficit to dominate the second half. He will demand so much more from his team to finish the job off in the second Test.
As for the Springboks, they face a very uncomfortable week of analysis and scrutiny. Their much-talked-about power up front stalled after 40 minutes and it was the Lions who dominated the forward exchanges. They are world champions and will need to dig deeper than they have ever done before to force a decider to keep themselves in the series. There must be serious question marks on the half-backs, and finding enough creativity to get the likes of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe into the game.
The Lions will rightly celebrate this victory but this is far from over.