The British and Irish Lions’ incredible second-half renaissance stumped world champions South Africa as they won the opening game of the series 22-17 in Cape Town.
It was a match of contrasting halves for the Lions who looked all over the place in the opening period as South Africa completely dominated them with the boot. Yet, a revitalised side came out in the second-half and battled courageously to turn the game on its head and in the end, it was the Springboks who were left to rue their mistakes.
To put this comeback win into context, before today’s stunning victory, the Lions had only won just one of their last 24 Test matches when they had trailed at the break (D1 L22), this was a 19-12 victory over Australia back in 1989. Interestingly, the Lions went on to win the series that year and now they have put themselves in a brilliant position to win just their second series since the turn of the millenium.
Questions were being asked of the Lions in the first-half after they were outplayed by South Africa, a side whose captain Siya Kolisi had just returned to the team from Covid-19 while the rest of the team had spent six days in isolation.
They answered them in the second period and did fantastically to come away with the victory, while riding their luck at times when the Springboks piled on the pressure – the hosts were the victims of two disallowed trys, one for offside and another for a knock on in the closing stages.
Whatever Warren Gatland had said to them at the break had an impact on all of the players.
Before today, South Africa had lost just one of their last 13 Tests (W11 D1), winning the last seven in a row. This was their longest winning run since 2013-14 (W8); however, the Springboks had only played one Test match since their Rugby World Cup triumph in 2019.
The Lions suffered a setback in the first-half as they looked lost and lacked discipline. They were first punished by a South African penalty and Handre Pollard stepped up and converted to give them a three-point lead. It only took four minutes for Pollard to have another penalty chance which he also converted as the Lions were 6-0 down before 20 minutes. One of the toughest tours in the world looked like handing out another brutal punishment.
For a brief moment it seemed like the Lions had found their fighting spirit as it was their turn for a penalty for an offence during a line-out. It was the responsibility of Dan Biggar to try and reduce the lead and instigate a change in mentality for the Lions. His kick sailed between the posts and it gave his side a chance to find their rhythm as they pulled the score back to 6-3.
The Lions continued to be their own worst enemy as they gave away another two sloppy penalties which Pollard scored to increase South Africa’s lead to nine heading into the break as Pollard was absolutely sensational from the tee throughout. South Africa let their guards down late in the half as they gave away two penalties but the Lions looked shaky and Biggar missed the first before Elliot Daly missed the second.
As the second-half started, the Lions looked hungrier to stamp their mark on the game, they had clearly been lifted by Gatland’s team talk. Within minutes they had scored the first try of the game through Luke Cowan-Dickie. Biggar was then able to reduce the lead to two and the contest was back on. They were let off by South Africa having a try ruled out for Willie le Roux being offside.
It did not take long for South Africa to regroup as they went on to score their first try in the 50th minute. Pieter-Steph du Toit’s impressive break led to wing Makazole Mapimpi chipping a ball through and after a scuffle, scrum-half Faf de Klerk ended up with the ball over the tryline – which was confirmed by TMO. In a surprising turn of events not befitting of the night, Pollard could not make his kick count, which would prove crucial.
The Lions did not bow down and Biggar scored a penalty minutes after South Africa’s try as they saw an opportunity to go on and win the game. South Africa were forming a strong defensive line as the Lions struggled to break through but another penalty by Biggar meant there was just one point in it.
After another tense period, you could see the nerves were now getting to the South Africans who gave away another penalty which Biggar scored to put the Lions ahead for the first time in the game – it really was a switch of performances in the second-half but South Africa were carrying a lot more threat in the second period than the Lions did in the first.
The Lions were given a huge let off late on as Pollard missed a penalty and the Springboks had another try cancelled out for a knock on, but this is the sort of luck you need to win against the World Cup holders.
Owen Farrell stepped up to take a penalty in the dying minutes as a result of another costly error from South Africa in the second-half, he scored to make the score 17-22 which wrapped up the points for the Lions to get the Test series off to a fantastic start.
Warren Gatland, take a bow.