x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lions come out with a whimper

It had been deemed such an easy opener for the Lions that the 41,000-capacity Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Phokeng was four-fifths empty, all attention directed elsewhere, on the Super 14 final, 120 miles away in Pretoria.

The opening game on Saturday was a struggle in its own right, a scrambled, scrappy victory for the British & Irish Lions over a Royal XV. It had been deemed such an easy opener for the Lions that the 41,000-capacity Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Phokeng was four-fifths empty, all attention directed elsewhere, on the Super 14 final, 120 miles away in Pretoria. Yes, it was a struggle in the heat of Saturday afternoon high on the veld. Victory was secured only with a burst of scoring in the last five minutes, with tries by Alun Wyn Jones and Ronan O'Gara. These provided relief after the home team had dominated the first half to lead 18-10 at the interval, and seemingly set up an invincible position with a second-half try by Bees Roux. A solo try by Lee Byrne, outstanding at fullback, started the fight-back, a penalty by Ronan O'Gara continued the repair-work and the two tries completed the face-saving. But it was laboured, with young Keith Earls making a fumbling debut in the centre and scrum-half Mike Blair harassed around the fringes. Only Jamie Roberts in the centre offered some thrust to compensate for the disorderliness. By Sunday it had not grown any better. Rob Howley, the Lions three-quarters coach, gave a blunt appraisal: "We struggled with the temperature, the altitude; half the side had not played for four or five weeks; we had new combinations; we were very disjointed. We gave away turnovers and our accuracy was disappointing, as was our ball retention and the tempo of the game." What made it worse for the Lions was that in that Super 14 final at a sell-out Loftus Versfeld ? 52,000 in the blue of the Bulls ? the home team, containing nine Springboks in the starting line-up and three on the bench, played just about the perfect game of rugby. They rattled up a record score, with eight tries, against the Chiefs of New Zealand, winning 61-17. Ian Foster, the Chiefs coach, when asked if the Bulls might be stronger than the Springboks said: "Well, with the intensity, the tight five, the work at the breakdown... they hit us with another level." The stellar South Africans now have to start all over again as Springboks. Can they maintain those levels? If there was any comfort for the Lions it came in their spirit. They were red-faced and puffing, but they held themselves together and came though in the end. They suffered no major injuries ? just some blisters to the feet of prop Andrew Sheridan, a knock to the knee of centre Riki Flutey and a scratch on the cornea of second row and captain Paul O'Connell. They now have to regroup and take the same risks again, putting together a new group of strangers to face the Golden Lions on Wednesday at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.

ebutler@thenational.ae