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Lions have destiny in their own hands after stirring comeback

·5-min read

A week can be an achingly long time in rugby, particularly on a British & Irish Lions tour. As at the Ryder Cup or an Ashes series, momentum can swiftly fluctuate and apparent certainties evaporate. Yet as they sit pretty in their plush coastal base in the Western Cape, 1-0 up in this series, Warren Gatland’s squad are not only the masters of their own destiny but on the verge of an achievement that would ripple around the world.

Because the narrow 22-17 first Test scoreline does not wholly reflect the psychological scarring the Springboks must repair before Saturday’s second Test. In addition to failing to make their first-half advantage count, the world champions looked almost completely tactically and aerobically shot by the final whistle. As Gatland pithily put it on Sunday: “We feel there is another level in us but I’m not sure where their momentum is going to come from.”

Related: British & Irish Lions rally in second half to win first Test against South Africa

The Lions, consequently, are daring to believe they might have their prey surrounded. The scrummaging impetus that propelled South Africa to World Cup glory is nowhere to be seen, either because of differing personnel or altered circumstances, and opponents who hang tough defensively, stay disciplined and compete on the territorial kicking front can make the Boks look horribly one-dimensional.

Of course, Covid-19 disruption has played a part – the Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi, was among those seemingly short of a gallop – but some of the team stats to emerge from Saturday’s game were striking. By the Lions’ count the Boks spent just 30 seconds in possession in the visitors’ 22 in the entire game and were permitted only four lineout throws. In addition, the visitors conceded only one penalty in a second half which they ended up winning 19-5.

Replicate that theme in the second Test and, as the ever-shrewd Gatland rightly says, South Africa are either going to have to locate a second wind fitness-wise or reinvent their gameplan totally. Neither of those two ambitions is practicably possible within a couple of training sessions and there are no fresh battalions of Bok reinforcements to come charging over Table Mountain. “If you limit their set-piece opportunities you are taking away a massive part of their game,” observed a cheerful-sounding Gatland.

The other side of the equation is the enormous surge in confidence his own players will gain from Saturday’s stirring revival. During the first half plenty went awry, from unnecessary penalties and lineout inaccuracies to one or two wasted attacking opportunities. By the final whistle, those misgivings had long since given way to widespread admiration for the Lions’ collective spirit, the ominous strength of their driven mauls and the differing impacts of the two teams’ benches.

Related: Lions’ Maro Itoje strikes first in battle with South Africa’s Faf de Klerk

So much for the Boks’ “Bomb Squad” whose arrival, in this case, coincided with their side’s implosion. The magnificent pre-match anthem singers, a popular local troupe called Three Tons of Fun, made rather more of an impact than the home front row. And in a Test match where the devil was in the close-quarter detail, Gatland was particularly encouraged by the perfectly executed maul try, finished by Luke Cowan-Dickie, which ultimately proved the difference between the teams.

“It was like scoring a try from 90 metres as far as I was concerned,” said the head coach, paying tribute to the specialist work of, among others, his forwards coach Robin McBryde. “It was a big statement from us. We didn’t want to show too much of it on this tour early on but we needed to make sure we had something like that to go to in a tight game, something they weren’t quite expecting from us. It was really, really pleasing to score that try.”

Equally significant was the Boks’ inability either to shift the Lions scrum, with a revitalised Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler both enjoying a pleasing last quarter, or fashion anything in the final dozen phases of the game without their first-choice half-backs, Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard. Which prompts the only pressing question for Gatland to contemplate: does he need to tinker personnel-wise when he announces his second Test team on Tuesday?

If his fly-half Dan Biggar is passed fit and prop Wyn Jones’s shoulder does not recover sufficiently, there feels little need for sweeping changes at this stage. With a 1-0 series lead in the bank, though, there could be a case for a judicious midfield tweak with Owen Farrell, Chris Harris or even Bundee Aki joining Robbie Henshaw in the centres and the versatile Elliot Daly switching to the bench. Some would like to think again at hooker and full-back but who better to summon late on with a 2-0 series lead to scrap for than Ken Owens and Liam Williams?

Gatland might just fancy showing South Africa’s coaches a few different pictures but, ultimately, he will settle for a similar sequel, once again starring the outstanding Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje and orchestrated by Alun Wyn Jones, who captained the side brilliantly and set a Herculean physical example from start to finish.

The 2021 Lions are not there yet but the index finger of rugby history is beckoning.

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