Brent Popes Lions Player Watch After 2nd Test – Lions 25 South Africa 28
BRENT POPE – 2ND TEST MATCH REVIEW
12 years ago a young looking Jeremy Cuscott launched a last minute dropkick that broke the hearts of a rugby mad nation, this time it was Springbok replacement outhalf Moune Steyns chance for immortality, as his last second penalty kick meant that the Lions dreams of forcing a “do or die” game next week sadly went with it.
The tale of this lost series was that the Lions just couldn’t play for the full 80 minutes, and while they dominated for the last 40 minutes of the first test, and the first 60 minutes of this one it was the lack of clinical finishing that eventually cost them.
Over his illustrious career Ronan O’Gara has enjoyed some massive highs, and as a goal kicker he has often been the one to step up and take the responsibility for a win or a loss.
Yesterday, Ronan O’Gara’s last minute penalty(correct but cruel) realistically cost the Lions a chance at squaring the series. The real question is, was O’Gara right to keep the play alive with a speculative Garryowen when a kick to touch would have seen the end of the game and a creditable draw? I think O’Gara’s decision was the correct one, given that just minutes before the Lions had gone deep into South African territory and managed to convert a penalty, thus forcing the draw.
O’Gara’s intention was to get good field position and then hope it was the Springboks who infringed, and he went into the air in an effort to win the ball back. O’Gara simply wanted to win the match, and who knows on another day it may just have may have worked.
It will still sit heavy on the shoulders of O’Gara, simply because this is not a Munster or Irish team where his fellow players will remember the days that O’Gara won matches for them on his own, but rather a composite collection of four home union players, who may not be so sympathetic. One must also take into account the Lions growing injury list, and with the Lions down two of their attacking kingpins Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll that may have had also some bearing on O’Gara’s last minute decision? In the end it was still a game that the Lions could have won, and some weak Lions tackling allowed replacement Springbok centre Jacque Fourie to work some magic in just 3 inches of space. Fourie should never have been allowed to score, and probably wouldn’t have if either O’Driscoll or Roberts had still been on the park.
The game started in controversial enough circumstances with Springbok Flanker Schalk Burger being yellow carded for eye gouging on Luke Fitzgerald. Burger along with secondrow Botha has been cited, and Burger will play no part in this years Tri-Nations Series. Burger’s overall performance in the match was poor anyway, and when replacement Heinrich Brussow came on the park later in the second half, the Springboks suddenly began to dominate the loose ball again. In the first half the Lions were magnificent to a man, but one player was exceptional, Irish fullback Rob Kearney. Kearney put in one of the finest fullback displays ever seen on any rugby pitch, and his catching of the high ball was GAA schooled from the top drawer. The South Africans only had one game plan in the first 60 minutes or so, and it was to kick, and with Kearney and his all Irish back three of Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe taking everything the Boks could launch at them, it looked as if the Lions would hold on. Stephen Jones was doing his part by punishing the home team every time the Lions got into Springbok territory, while the South African kickers were going to pieces under the pressure until the arrival of hometown hero Steyn, who not only converted Fourie’s try from the sideline, but then coolly banged over the winning kick from about 50 metres.
There can be no criticism of the Lions selection prior to this match, as the visitors scrum not only held up, but dominated until they became uncontested (something that also helped the Springboks) and the whole Lions backline look sharp with every attack. Simon Shaw was like a concrete pillar at every kickoff and fully justified his selection at 36 years of age, while players like David Wallace (first half in particular) and Jamie Heaslip (defensively) were turning in massive individual performances. The Lions were not helped in the secondhalf by the ridiculous ruling of uncontested scrums, and while injury prevention is key in this game, especially in the area of the front row, something needs to be done in accommodating more front row players on the bench. Once the scrums became uncontested, the South Africans had one of the best No 8’s in the world Pierre Spies to take full advantage of a more secure platform, and it was the big No8 who started to make valuable yardage off a Springbok scrum that had been struggling badly in the first spell.
With the Lions tiring badly into the last 20 minutes but clinging on thanks to Jones’s boot the loss of their midfield Generals O’Driscoll and Roberts was the eventual death nail, it meant a complete reshuffle of the Lions backline and it was hugely disruptive especially in defence. You still have to take your hat off to the Springboks however, they were on the rack and they wouldn’t give up. For the first half they were on the brink of collapse, and facing a third winner takes all test against a confident and buoyed up Lions team in a rugby mad country that would not have accepted that. The Springbok public wanted quick revenge for 1997, and a loss yesterday would have meant a week of criticism for the home team and some of its players like Botha and Burger. So the Lions tour is effectively now over, with just pride to play for next week. The Lions will want to avoid a series whitewash, but it’s hard to see what sort of team the Lions will start with next week, in fact with such a high attrition rate yesterday, what sort of side is actually left?
Some questions will emerge today (especially from sections of the English media) as to whether Paul O’Connell was the right man to lead the Lions? In my opinion, he was. O’Connell is a quietly spoken man who always gives of his best, be it for Munster, Ireland and the now the Lions. His Lions team in the two tests were for the most part disciplined and courageous, and what people forget is that unlike the likes of Willie John McBride and Martin Johnston, O’Connell did not have any other National Captains in the forwards to assist him in some of the key decisions. Martin Johnston had the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Keith Wood and others to call on for advice, players for whom captaining national sides was second nature, O’Connell had a forward pack with little or no experience in this area.
In the end it was a fantastic test match that will live in the memory for years, it was just an unfortunate result and an unfortunate moment for Ronan O’Gara, who will take things on the chin and bounce back as he has always has.