Lions wear down Springboks to stage memorable second-half comeback

Itoje says improvement needed for second Test: ‘the Springboks, we know they are coming’

South Africa 17 British & Irish Lions 22

Take a bow, Warren Gatland. In classic New Zealand mentality, the Lions head coach decreed that his team should attack the opposition's strengths rather than their weaknesses, ultimately out-bullying the bullies at their own game, both on the ground and in the air.

It didn't work especially well in the first half admittedly, when some of the Lions' game management was flawed. A prime example was setting up Elliot Daly, off their second line-out, for a thunderous meat-and-drink hit by Lukhanyo Am, and when playing behind the gain line and half-way when Stuart Hogg went through with a pass to Robbie Henshaw.

Coupled with their ill-discipline, it enabled Handré Pollard to kick the Boks into a 12-3 interval lead.


Even so, the policy of keeping the ball in play contributed to the Boks, hit harder by the debilitating effects of Covid-19 in their camp, wilting in the second half. Tellingly, the home side had only four line-outs in the entire game, compared with the Lions’ 16.

Taken ownership

The scoreboard, along with the tenor of the first period, had a foreboding look to it at half-time. But the game turned on its head when Willie le Roux, who really should have taken ownership of the situation, and Dwagga Smith let an Ali Price box kick (which were much improved after the interval).

At Gatland’s insistence during a transformative interval get-together between players and coaches, the Lions twice went to the corner and were rewarded when the pack, aided by Price, Robbie Henshaw and Duhan van der Merwe, helped Luke Cowan-Dickie reach the line.

Added to this, the Lions negated the Boks’ line speed, took them through the phases in the safe knowledge that penalties would ensue from a tiring team, turned the screw with their maul and scrum, and found more distance and hang time with their kicking game to put the Boks further on to the back foot. In all of this, Gatland could feel vindicated in much of his selections and a far more impactful bench.

This was the biggest half-time deficit the Lions had overturned in 83 years.

A Boks backlash assuredly awaits. However, even in winning the World Cup they were never especially creative, relying instead on individualism, often in transition from opposition kicks or turnovers.

Hence, as well as being, well, just even more Springbok-like and upping their intensity and physicality, their think tank will have to have a rethink, beginning with a memo: Cheslin Kolbe is actually quite good with the ball in hand.

The brilliant Toulouse winger expended far more energy chasing high balls than he did running with the leather. In all, he received the ball just six times in the entire game, which was once more than the always dangerous Makazole Mapimpi and twice more than Am.

When not kicking the ball skywards, the Boks’ primary plan B was to have the ever-willing Damian de Allende, who had a battle royal with his familiar Leinster foe and equally immense Henshaw, truck it up. De Allende had 14 carries, and passed the ball just three times.

Another compelling duel between two of these sides' totems was that of Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth. One of the great aspects of Lions tours is you get to support players who heretofore have been a source of nothing but angst. Put another way, it sure is nicer having Itoje on your side.

Force of nature

Along with Courtney Lawes, Itoje was in familiar force of nature mode, not least at the breakdown, as well as brilliant in the line-outs and in all areas of the contact zone. Constant nuisance value, fittingly Itoje led the line in the final defensive set with his aggression and tackling until fittingly winning his fourth turnover of the match.

“We’ve worked pretty hard here in South Africa behind the scenes,” Itoje said of that second-half comeback. “Our conditioners did a great job and we back ourselves to at least play for the full 80. I don’t think anything came as too much as a surprise but we just had to back our ability in the second half.

“In the first half we didn’t start with the [required] intensity and we were probably a little bit too frantic. So there’s so much growth in this team. Game by game we’re getting better, we’re learning lessons so I think there is more to come from us but the onus is on us to look at what we’ve done.

“Obviously, today was a great win but I’m a man who likes to look at history and see how other tours have unfolded. Looking at the 2001 Tests in Australia, they won the first Test quite convincingly and then went on to lose the next two. We’re happy but we know that we need to be better next week, stronger. The Springboks, we know they are coming.”

SCORING SEQUENCE – 14 mins: Pollard pen 3-0; 18: Pollard pen 6-0; 20: Biggar pen 6-3; 27: Pollard pen 9-3; 31: Pollard pen 12-3; (half-time 12-3); 44: Cowan-Dickie try, Biggar con 12-10; 50: De Klerk try 17-10; 50: Biggar pen 17-13; 56: Biggar pen 17-16; 63: Biggar pen 17-19; 79: Biggar pen 17-22.

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Ox Nché (Cell C Sharks), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat); Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo).

Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) for Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers) for Nché, Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers) for Nyakane (all half-time), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks) for Mostert, Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse) for Smith (both 63 mins), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers) for Le Roux (67 mins), Elton Jantjies (Pau) for Pollard (70 mins), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers) for de Klerk (76 mins).

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales, capt); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) for Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for Sutherland, Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland) for Curry (all 57 mins), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland) for Price (64 mins), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) for Daly (66 mins), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) for Furlong, Daly for Biggar (both 67 mins), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales) for Van der Merwe (70 mins) , Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland) for Lawes (74 mins).

Referee: Nic Berry (Australia).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times