Brent Popes Lions Player Watch – After First Test – Lions 21 South Africa 26
BRENT POPE – 1ST TEST REVIEW
Lions Coach Ian McGeechan is in a real selection dilemma now? Does he stick with his starting team selection of this week (apart from the obvious removal of prop Phil Vickery) or on the basis of their second half revival, does he jump ship and select a new starting team in an effort to square up the series? You can guarantee that apart from a possible reshuffle in the centres, that the South Africans will not change their starting team much.
There were two aspects of this match that ultimately affected the end result, and both had nothing to do with the players but rather their respective head coaches. Firstly Ian McGeechan’s failure to pull floundering prop Phil Vickery from the field much sooner than he did, and then the arrogance and near tactical suicide of the Springbok Coach Peter de Villiers, who emptied his bench in an effort to give all his players a run out, and it very nearly cost him the match. Had the game run on for another 10 minutes the Lions would have won and De Villiers left with egg all over his face? In the end what looked like a one sided humiliation by the hosts just after halftime, turned out to be a fantastic second half revival by a team that refused to lie down?
Paul O’Connell can be proud of the way he nearly pulled off one of the great comebacks in Lions and test match history, and had a couple of passes stuck, or kicks at goal gone over, then the Lions would have emulated Lazarus. Of course this predisposes that the South Africans did not take their foot off the pedal figuring the game to be done and dusted? I said last week that the Lions would dominate in the scrums, but in the first half they received a battering up front that could only be described as embarrassing. Phil Vickery, who had come into the game as the form tighthead on tour, was destroyed by the “Beast” Mtawarira, a former flanker who is probably not even the best loose head prop in the country, but rather selected on the coloured player quota. Vickery scrummed far too high, and while the Beast may have been penalised by another referee for old-fashioned, but illegal boring in on the Lions hooker, the English Captain and the Lions front row in general was more often popped up in the air, or face down on the ground facing another kickable penalty. It also meant that Irelands No 8 Jamie Heaslip was almost anonymous in the first half, being unfairly asked to pick up ball or make ground from a retreating scrum.
The Lions lineout was not faring much better at this stage, with South Africa’s artful poacher Victor Matfield stealing some of Lions hooker Lee Mears loose throws to the tail of the lineout. With the hosts enjoying supremacy in the maul (the Lions being driven 20 metres in one memorable flex of South African muscle) scrum, lineout and kicks at goal, the points just kept ticking over courtesy of Pienaars reliable boot. For all intense purposes the Lions were not only losing the match but being humiliated. Paul O’Connell’s career as Lions Captain was about to be heavily scrutinised by the English media and the whole history of future Lions tours lay in the balance. But to be honest the Lions had not been that bad in the first spell despite the flattering score line, they had gifted the Springboks an easy first try to get them up and running, and should have scored a couple of tries themselves.
The South Africans didn’t actually create anything, the Lions problems unfortunately stemmed from one man Phil Vickery. Without a scrum and a badly misfiring lineout, the Lions basics were shot to hell, with only Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll offering some chinks of light. Every kickable penalty for the Boks seemed to stem from another scrum infringement, and you had the sense that Lions forward Coach Warren Gatland should have seen it a lot earlier. Gatland knew what Adam Jones could contribute, so why didn’t he tell Ian McGeechan to substitute Vickery midway through the first half? And why did Vickery appear after halftime, only to dive over a ruck and give the Springboks another 3 points? Four minutes into the second half and the wholly haired Adam Jones finally appeared, and the agony was over, things began to change almost immediately, although at about the very same time the Springbok Coach Peter de Villiers started making the changes that would ultimately let the Lions back into the game.
Suddenly the Lions scrum and lineout was superior, and the forwards lead by Paul O’Connell and Tom Croft began to punch holes in a tiring Springbok defence. O’Driscoll’s angled run that had sent Croft in for his first try worked again for Crofts second, and when the South Africans started to panic, Welsh scrumhalf Mike Philips was in again, to leave just a try between the teams going into the last few minutes. What had seemed impossibility just after halftime, was now not only possible, but probable, the only problem was had the Lions left their assault about 5 minutes too late? Had the Lions scored earlier when they were repeatedly assaulting the Springbok line then they may have had time to win, especially as the South Africans were making mistakes all over the park.
In the end a bad scrum, a weak lineout and some missed kicks at goal cost the Lions the first test. They will learn and have confidence going into the second, but so will the South Africans, and the world champions will now be all the better for losing a tight game, and having a much needed game together. The Springboks despite the win will look at where they went wrong as well, namely they will probably reselect their midfield, and will not be as eager to empty the bench this time out. The influential Swalk Burger may also be back, which is not welcomed news for the tourists.
From the Lions perspective Ian McGeechan is in a tricky position now, does he stick with the bones of the side that made such a remarkable comeback? Or does he shake things up a bit, meaning a few changes? The problem is had the Lions lost badly, which looked odds on after 60 minutes, then the decision would be easy, just make the changes, but McGeechan is now faced with a dilemma, the only certainty is that Phil Vickery will be no where near the Lions side or even the replacements bench next week, with Irelands John Hayes or Andrew Sheridan now poised to come onto the bench. It is a harsh end of the tour for the English Captain, but without a scrum a team cannot hope to win, and Vickery cannot hope to improve that much in a week, it now looks as if the midweek and Saturday games to date were a false dawn, and will require a major rethink.
The Lions must win next week, but at least their team spirit and confidence is still intact and not in tatters, they also know the South Africans will be waiting in the long grass better prepared and at high altitude. The odds of a series win does not favour the team that loses the first rubber, but as in Australia a few years ago, when the Lions won the series after losing the first match all is not over yet, it just got considerably harder that’s all.
How the players fared:
Lee Byrne: Unfortunately for the Welsh star, Byrne was forced to play in a defensive role rather than showing his attacking prowess. Was replaced in the second half by the big kicking Rob Kearny, who had a good game and possibly showed enough to usurp the Welsh fullback for the second test. 6/10
Rob Kearney: Came on and made a huge difference. Took all the high balls majestically in the air, and kicked to touch well. Kearney was lucky that the Lions started to attack and get some ball in the second spell rather than just kick and chase and it will be a close selection call for next week. 7/10
Ugo Moyne: Made the mistake that gifted the hosts a soft try in the first few minutes, and also dropped some early high balls. Nearly scored a good try, but was turned over at the vital time, another player who might struggle to get selected for the second test if Ian McGeechan decides to vary things, still a chance that Luke Fitzgerald might get a chance if selected and plays well midweek. 6/10
Tommy Bowe. Bowe made one incision into the backline that should have resulted in a try if the Irishman had of just held onto the ball. Did not see enough of the ball to show his tour form, but will probably hold his position based on reputation. 7/10
Brian O’Driscoll. Along with Jamie Roberts, O’Driscoll made mince meat of the South African midfield backs, and looked dangerous with every touch of the ball. Created Tom Crofts first try with a sensational step and feed. Gave the Lions every chance in the dying minutes and continues to defy the critics with a season of dreams. 8/10
Jamie Roberts. Forget Pienaar, Roberts was the star of the show, and broke through the Springbok backline at will. Amazing to think now that Roberts was overlooked for the overrated Gavin Henson against Ireland in the Grand Slam decider last year. Roberts is now emerging as the “player of the tour” and the South Africans will have to restructure their whole defensive plan just to shut him down next week. 9/10
Stephan Jones: Just adequate, and could well be replaced by Ronan O’Gara next week, especially after Jones missed two kicks at goal when the Lions badly needed points on the board. 6/10
Mike Phillips: Scored a crucial try, but took far too many steps before passing, and was slow in clearing ball at the base of the scrum and rucks. Invited the South Africans up flat on defence, and is not the answer. The Lions will rue the injury to Tomas O’Leary, who would offer a much faster delivery. Harry Ellis may put pressure on Phillips now, especially if O’Gara is preferred to Jones, thus breaking up the Phillips, Jones Welsh combination. 6/10
Jamie Heaslip. Had to try and operate behind a dismantled scrum and hence could not make much of an impression. Much better in the second half when things went more the Lions way, but will want to perform better next week if selected. 6/10
David Wallace: Was the Lions best forward in the first half despite very little good front foot ball. Made two or three trademark Wallace breaks, one of which could have resulted in a try. Unfortunately for Wallace when Martyn Williams came on the Lions were dominant and Williams looked good. Another Irish player who may not make it next week, all depends on how the coaches view things. 6/10
Tom Croft: Not a physical presence like say Stephen Ferris, but ran good support lines for two tries, took some ball at the tail of the lineout and made some great tackles. Rangy and fast, Croft was one of the better Lions performers. 7/10
Alun Wynn Jones: The lineout did not function as well as the Lions would have anticipated, especially with four jumpers at their disposal. Lee Mears throws too often went over O’Connell and Jones head. The Welshman was good in defence, with some bone crunching tackles but may be overlooked next week. 6/10
Paul O’Connell. As usual the Irish lock worked his socks off carrying ball around the fringes of rucks and mauls, but at times it was probably too predictable, especially in the first half, and the South Africans had him well read. Made a lot more ground in the second half, and lead the team well. 7/10
Phil Vickery; The English tight-head was touted by Lions scrum-coach Graham Roundtree as the “man to do the job” on what was deemed to be a weak enough South African front row, but he failed badly. Vickery is not a villain, he just had the worst day of his career in an area that he must take full responsibility in. Will not make the second test, and his international career may go into free fall. 4/10
Lee Mears. Mears throwing has been accurate up until now but on this tour but on Saturday his darts went astray against the tall timbers of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Mears did not get enough loose ball to make any impact where he is best with ball in hand, and was eventually replaced.
Gethin Jenkins: Jenkins while part of an overall dismantled front row, seemed to get a new lease of life when Welsh team-mate Adam Jones came on. Kept his side of the scrum reasonably steady throughout, and got around the park like an extra loose forward, including one memorable tackle of Bryan Habbana from behind, will be retained…7/10
Adam Jones: Not only held the scrum up, but actually took it forward on the tight-head side. Admittedly the South Africans had made some radical changes and were tiring badly, but all tour Jones has been slightly underrated and must start the second test.
Matthew Rees; Like Martyn Williams, Donnacha O’Callaghan ,Jones and Kearny all had the luxury of coming on when the Lions were on top but Rees carried ball well, and is a bigger physical presence than Mears. Helped fill the scrum and also the lineout came right, a coincidence or just good timing?
Donnacha O’Callaghan: Like the above mentioned it was a good day to be a sub. O’Callaghan may have done enough to make the second test, but will have to see how the selectors feel about Nathan Hines after the Scots poor run out last week against the Southern Kings.