The British & Irish Lions earned a deserved consolation when they thumped the Springboks 28-9 on Saturday.
The Boks went into this game having already secured the series, but the opportunity was there to affect a whitewash. The new-look side failed to gel and you have to wonder how much the Bok management considered this an opportunity to experiment rather than an opportunity to go 3-0 up. It was a disappointment on all counts.
The way both teams went at it in the first 10 minutes, you wouldn’t think there were any concerns over the perceived niggle and bad blood. Wearing white armbands to express their disappointment for Bakkies Botha’s suspension, the Boks flew into tackles as if there was still a series at stake, while the visitors responded in kind.
One-on-one tackling was never a problem. The Boks’ synergy let them down on attack and defence, and although this was to be expected considering the majority of the combinations hadn’t spent much time together, it was hardly excusable.
The hosts seemed to be lacking patience as well as precision as a number of early opportunities were missed due to a determined Lions’ spoil. Although they affected some important turnovers of their own, the Boks will lament their inability to control possession to the point where they couldn’t build or profit from a mulit-phase attack.
The defensive synergy was sorely lacking, and time and again, the drift defence was penetrated by one of the big Lions backs. Rob Kearney had another solid day at the back for the visitors, but it was on the wings that the Lions caused all the trouble.
In the 25th minute, Lions No 8 Jamie Heaslip found space on the left wing and palmed off some shocking tackle attempts. Meanwhile, Shane Williams had timed his support run to perfection and accepted the pass before jetting in under the posts.
Another turnover sparked the Lions’ second try as Riki Flutey put in a smart chip that was collected and touched onto Williams yet again. The Wales winger didn’t have to do much but dot down under the posts, and with Jones’s conversion, the Lions had shot to a commanding 15-3 lead.
Referee Stuart Dickinson said he would punish indiscipline and nailed the Boks at scrum time. Beast Mtawarira’s contribution around the park was typically outstanding, but the Bok loosehead was penalised on numerous occasions as the Lions’ tight five applied massive pressure at the set-piece.
Dickinson also nailed the Lions for their lack of discipline in the 37th minute. Fourie du Preez went down to retrieve a rolling ball and received Simon Shaw’s knee in his back. After consulting the touch judge, Dickinson sent Shaw to the sin bin.
The Boks bumbled a try-scoring opportunity but a late shot at goal by Morne Steyn took the half-time score to 15-6. Unfortunately for the Boks, three points were all they were going to gain from their one-man advantage.
The Lions continued to pressure the Boks early in the second half and only some last-ditch tackling and important ball-stealing by Heinrich Brussow stopped them from extending their lead. Du Preez also failed to return after the break meaning Ruan Pienaar had to come off the bench and play scrumhalf.
The Boks blew a try-scoring opportunity when the otherwise impressive Zane Kirchner dropped the ball in the act of offloading in the tackle. Wynand Olivier had thrown a beautiful floating pass to free up Kirchner, and attempted to replicate this pass in a subsequent move. Unfortunately, Ugo Monye read the play beautifully, intercepted the pass, and ran 80m to score.
At 22-6 with 25 minutes to play, there was no way back for the Boks. They continued to struggle for synergy, and the error count began to escalate in accordance with their desperation. They already had the series, but it was disappointing to see them flailing in this fashion.
As the calls of ‘Lions, Lions’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ grew more prominent around a buzzing Ellis Park, the touring team defied recent form by maintaining the pressure.
The hosts battled to get into try-scoring positions as the clock wound down and John Smit eventually turned to Steyn when presented with a penalty from 40m out. The Bulls’ sharpshooter kicked a difficult goal to narrow the deficit, but the 22-9 scoreline still left the Boks with too much to do in too little time to do it.
The poor discipline that has afflicted the Boks throughout the series then cost the hosts in the final minutes, as Heinrich Brussow was penalised for retaliation. Jones made no mistake in restoring the 16-point cushion, and goaled another penalty soon after when Bismarck du Plessis was penalised for hitting him late.
The Boks were also denied a consolation try at the death when the TMO ruled Odwa Ndungane stepped into touch at the moment of grounding a try.
The result takes no shine off an overall series victory for the Boks, but highlights a few problem areas ahead of the Tri-Nations. The first-choice line-up will be back for that tournament, but it must concern the Bok management to see the second string fare so badly.
By Jon Cardinelli, at Ellis Park