Lions get a rude awakening as South Africa A hand out a bruising defeat

Yet again Warren Gatland’s side struggled resourcing their own ball at the breakdown

South Africa A 17 British & Irish Lions 13

Tour on. The Springboks, in the very transparent guise of the South African A side, landed a significant blow prior to the first Test in 10 days’ time at the same Cape Town Stadium.

Confronted, in every sense, like nothing before on this tour by a typically physical home side, as with Saturday’s first half against the Sharks, the Lions again had issues resourcing their own ball at the breakdown.

They lost the collisions and their kicking game was also inferior, especially in the first half, and one of the abiding lessons is not to kick long to Cheslin Kolbe. Without the kind of X-factor Kolbe provides, their attack looked blunt, lamentably so when failing to convert a 15 v 13 advantage on half-time, so leaving them 17-3 adrift.


Having regrouped at the interval, the Lions put more tempo on the ball – which they have to do to have any chances of winning the Test series – and went to both edges. But it wasn’t enough, the South African As earning a win through the typically manic, do-or-die defence of their own line and ultimately the game management of the wily Faf de Klerk, Morné Steyn et al.

They didn’t do too much, but they rarely do, and given what they’d been through lately, that was entirely understandable. Rassie Erasmus, unsurprisingly, hasn’t lost his winning touch. Their fitness levels held up well.

The Lions will need to take this one on the chin and learn from it. One hopes they've kept some of their powder dry and, on the plus side, there were good games from Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Anthony Watson.

There also appeared to be no injuries. Dan Biggar – sorely missed on this evidence – and Josh Adams were late withdrawals and were replaced by Owen Farrell and Liam Williams. But the latter didn't return after departing for an HIA in the 14th minute, with Elliot Daly coming on at fullback, where he performed well in all aspects.

Farrell, ruled out on Monday with an abdominal strain before being called in for Biggar with the outhalf issues which have afflicted the tourists, had some good moments, but understandably hasn’t been helped by a season in the Championship.

However, it was their breakdown issues which had the Lions in immediate trouble. Having already being penalised once, the Lions turned over the ball when counter-rucked and they were indebted to the bounce of the ball eluding Willie Le Roux from De Klerk's clever chip and to Watson's try-saving tackle when dragging Sbu Nkosi's leg into the touchline.

As if to underline that this game was ramping up the stakes after the Lions had racked up half centuries in their previous three games, the home side then opted to take the opening three-pointer through the 37-year-old Steyn.

The Lions then asserted their scrum and lineout but Franco Mostert won a questionable penalty when a maul went to ground. Worse, on the next Lions sortie, Farrell's attempted chip was blocked by the 6' 8" Eben Etzebeth, Damian de Allende snaffling the loose ball and sending Nkosi away for a free run to the corner from inside halfway.

Steyn converted and, after Farrell missed a penalty to the corner and Louis Rees-Zammit sliced out on the full, the South African maul earned one penalty before they opted for the corner. But the Lions pack repelled the maul and won a second scrum penalty, moving upfield to open their account when Etzebeth didn't roll after an Iain Henderson carry.

The Lions' kicking game continued to do them no favours, and when Daly punted straight to Kolbe the Toulouse winger stood up Chris Harris and left him and Rees-Zammit for dead with his fiendish skip, show and step, breaking clear and offloading inside for the captain Lukhanyo Am to finish with a perfectly timed call and support run on the inside.

The Lions needed a try, and so went to the corner and then pounded the line off two close-range tapped penalties. The home side defended their line with trademark intensity, too much so as De Klerk and Etzebeth were binned for a reckless tackle and repeat infringements.

Against 13 men the Lions opted for a third tap, rather than a scrum, and the route one, pick-and-jam approach again for no reward, as Wyn Jones was pinged in grounding the ball after a double movement.

Imagine the All Blacks not having the imagination to convert a 15 v 13? They wouldn’t be allowed home.

The Lions looked sure to do so on the resumption when Murray retrieved his own up-and-under and went wide to Rees-Zammitt and the supporting Tom Curry. They again made further inroads wide right through Watson before finally tap and jam yielded a try for Jones.

Farrell converted and landed a penalty to make it 17-13, but a 13-phase move ended with Rees-Zammit touching down inches short in being pinged for a double movement.

Steyn surprisingly missed from 50 metres and was wide with a drop goal, but Jaco Peyper gave the Lions nothing in the last quarter.

If nothing else, it’s a wake-up call. A loud one too.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 6 mins: Steyn pen 3-0; 13: Nkosi try, Steyn con 10-0; 28: Farrell pen 10-3; 32: Am try, Steyn pen 17-3; (half-time 17-3); 45: Jones try, Farrell con 17-10; 51: Farrell pen 17-13.

SOUTH AFRICA 'A': Willie le Roux (Verblitz, Jpn); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Sharks, capt), Damian de Allende (Munster), Sbu Nkosi (Sharks); Morné Steyn (Bulls), Faf de Klerk (Sale); Steven Kitshoff (Stormers), Joseph Dweba (Bordeaux), Trevor Nyakane (Bulls); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Heat, Jpn); Marco van Staden (Leicester), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers), Jasper Wiese (Leicester).

Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Spears, Jpn) for Dweba (39 mins), Vincent Koch (Saracens) for Nyakane (42), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse) for Du Toit (43), Damian Willemse (Stormers) for de Allende (53), Jesse Kriel (Eagles, Jpn) for Le Roux (55 mins), Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale) for Kitshoff (63), Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg (Montpellier) for Van Staden (65),Herschel Jantjies (Stormers) for Wiese (72).

Sinbinned: De Klerk (39 mins), Etzebeth (40 mins).

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester, Wales), Chris Harris (Gloucester, Scotland), Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Anthony Watson (Bath, England); Owen Farrell, Saracens, England), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland, capt); Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland); Josh Navidi (Cardiff, Wales), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Taulupe Faletau (Bath, Wales).

Replacements: Elliot Daly (Saracens, England) for Williams (14 mins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for Jones (46), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England) for Faletau (48), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England) for Owens (52 ), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) for Sinckler, Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales) for Henderson (both 63), Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland) for Navidi (70), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales) for Murray (76).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times