World champions by name, world champions by nature. South Africa withstood a ferocious late charge by the British & Irish Lions to win the first Test of the three-match series 26-21 in Durban yesterday.
Springboks stand firm
World champions by name, world champions by nature. South Africa withstood a ferocious late charge by the British & Irish Lions to win the first Test of the three-match series 26-21 in Durban yesterday. Despite being outscored three tries to two, the Springboks' early momentum proved enough for them to grab the vital first international. The hosts led 26-7 early in the second half, but a two-try burst by the Lions saw them roar back into contention. Expectations were that the Springboks' rustiness would prove telling, but they set a remarkable pace from the start that stunned the Lions. Allied to the high penalty count against the Lions, particularly at the breakdowns, plus a powerful Springbok scrummage, the Lions had little response initially. Phil Vickery, the Lions tighthead, was savaged by Tendai Mtawarira and consequently the Lions had to feed off scraps from first phase. It was much the same in the lineouts where Lee Mears struggled to find his jumpers. "The penalty count cost us," said Lions captain Paul O'Connell, whose frustration was plainly evident as he remonstrated with referee Bryce Lawrence. "I don't know what was going on at the scrum, but was disappointed we conceded so many penalties." The Lions had their chances, especially after Tom Croft's early score. The trouble was that the Boks produced a high pressure game that restricted the Lions' rhythm. With flyhalf Ruan Pienaar marshalling the hosts' backline and kicking splendidly, the Lions were often forced to turn and chase. Ugo Monye crossed the South African tryline twice, only to be denied by the TMO and, later, by Morne Steyn's heroic tackle that dislodged the ball from his grasp. "We gave them too much credit in the first half," despaired Lions centre Brian O'Driscoll, who was constantly dangerous. "In the second, we said 'to hell with it' and went after them. Our set-piece struggled. We didn't get a platform until the second half. We could have sneaked it." The trouble for the Springboks was that coach Peter de Villiers made his substitutions too early and the fresh players were suckered by the Lions' impressive resurgence around the hour mark. Heinrich Brussow and John Smit's tries, plus six goalkicks, had given the Boks a cushion, but they failed to score from the 46th minute. Instead, it was the Lions who finished with a flourish, tries going again to Croft with Mike Phillips getting another. The Boks never hit panic mode, but their defence was frazzled and they looked out on their feet at the end. Coach Peter de Villiers admitted his error: "We allowed them to come back. We were a bit flat and I thought fresh legs would help. I made a mistake there." Lions coach Ian McGeechan rued his team allowing South Africa to accumulate early points. "It's very difficult to give South Africa 26 points," he said, "but to come back was pleasing. As for the referee, we'll have to look [at the tape]. If there are issues, we'll take them up. There were two or three chances we didn't take in the first half. We didn't make the most of the 60% territory advantage." Bok captain John Smit conceded that his team was unhappy about easing off. "The rustiness left us with a lot to do. We must keep the intensity up. Both teams badly wanted the win - we must finish this off next week." Jeremy Guscott, a Lions player in 1997, remarked on how badly the Lions scrum had gone and said Vickery should have been replaced sooner than he was. "There were wasted chances, especially WITH Monye, but there's lots of hope for next week."