Ben Kay: I expect it to be spiky and extremely brutal
It’s a cliché, I know, but the first Test was the classic game of two halves. In the first half, in every key indicator showed the Lions were second best but it was a complete reversal after the break.
The dial slipped from 60 per cent possession and territory to the Springboks in the first half, to nearly 70 per cent in favour of the Lions by the time Nic Berry blew his whistle.
When the penalty count starting to rack up against the hosts, you knew the momentum was shifting.
A big part of the turnaround was the Lions controlling the middle third of the field. In that area there is less pressure on the referee to give penalties and the old adage is, if you are going to give away a penalty, make sure you’re in the right part of the field and the Lions played a smarter game in the closing stages.
Early on the Lions just couldn’t get any foundation in the game; the lineout was under serious pressure; the scrum was creaking and the kicking was hit and miss. The consequence was that discipline started to suffer and Handre Pollard doesn’t need a second invitation to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Unlike the tour games, they just couldn’t get the momentum of their carrying game going and the number of passes per tackle was really low. It was fragmented rugby with no continuity, which is exactly what you don’t want to do against South Africa. Still, somehow, the Lions found a way.
Springboks unable to make dominance count
South Africa are so good at controlling the tempo of the game. It’s all about taking away any speed or momentum from the opposition. They’ll slow it right down, give you nowhere to go when you’re in possession and then bang, they’ll hit you with an electric break from their speedsters. That changed in the second-half and you have to wonder whether that was down to fatigue on their part. Even so, the pressure of test rugby against the Boks meant the Lion’s first receiver (throughout the whole game, including the recovery) was able to get the pass away 23% less than the tour average making the attack so much more predictable as the lions average width of attack fell by 23% as well.
The fact South Africa were only 12-3 at the break didn’t reflect how dominant they’d been and that will be a bit of a worry ahead of this weekend. Nine points wasn’t enough of a psychological mountain for the Lions to climb, and almost felt like a positive for Warren Gatland’s men considering the pounding they had taken. As soon as the Lions started to get a bit of ruck speed, the momentum shifted and we saw an increase in passes as, correspondingly, the Springboks’ line speed started to subside.
It was what we’ve consistently talked about; whichever team dictates their game plan will emerge victorious, and so it proved.
Gatland wins the pre-match psychological game
The game was hung on some really contentious decisions from the TMO, Marius Jonker. You have to doff your cap to Gats. During the week, he let it be known that he was furious about Jonker being appointed, but he knew it was too late to replace him. The press coverage just put Jonker in an invidious position. If any decisions went in favour of the Lions, it would look like he was over-compensating and if it went to the Springboks, he’d be accused of bias. He would tell you that his decision making was not affected at all but it can affect your subconscious.
I know what it’s like. A lot of Leicester fans give me stick for being anti-Leicester but I’m just trying to call it how I see it. Naturally it will be on my mind to ensure my commentary is neutral, so maybe you can be overly critical because everyone is expecting me to be soft on my old team. I’ll often see tweets on my timelines saying, ‘I’ve never met a more biased commentator than Ben Kay, and directly below it, one saying, ‘I can’t believe how anti-Tigers Ben Kay is’. You can’t win.
In the cold light of day, however, I believe he got crucial decisions wrong.
For Le Roux’s disallowed try, I actually thought the pass from De Allende, before the kick, should have been looked at more before they got to the kick, because it looked forward. As for Le Roux, on first viewing, he looked offside, but on closer inspection, I’m not sure he was. When Am kicked it through, you could see quite clearly on pause that his pink boot at the moment the ball was kicked was at least in line with Le Roux. As the on-field decision was a try, so the offside had to be clear and obvious for it to be disallowed. They say, if it’s borderline, you go with the benefit of the doubt. It was like one of those VAR decisions in football searching for a fingertip in front.
Then there was the Hamish Watson tackle. By the letter of the law, it’s potentially a red card but I thought it would routinely be talked down to a yellow. It was above the horizontal and he lands on his shoulder/top of his back. There was low danger so I doubt there would have been any complaints if it was yellow. Although not everything went their way the Lions certainly got the better of the decisions.
The bomb squad fail to explode
When Rassie Erasmus replaced Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor NYakane with the much-feted bomb squad of Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx after the break, it was to ram home their advantage but it backfired. Mako Vunipola, who had struggled in the 2019 World Cup Final, was absolutely superb. With Wyn Jones still struggling with a shoulder infection there are no surprises that Gatland felt they dodged a bit of a bullet in the first half and he has made the switch of Mako Vunipola for Rory Sutherland. Indeed, for all the chat about not making changes to a winning side, Gatland’s adjustments to his squad suggest a switch of the gameplan.
It looks as if the Lions had gone bold in the first test with attack from the off and security on the bench. They have switched things round and to use a football analogy are “parking the bus early on in the second leg!” Ali Price, who didn’t get the ball to allow him to get into the game first-half had a good second-half as the game loosened but Murray closed the game out expertly, so maybe Price, after dropping to the bench for the second Test, can raise the tempo towards the end of the game. Similarly Daly didn’t receive the quality of ball he needed to show his merits but his versatility, huge boot and more attacking style is still seen as an option later on off the bench. The lack of change in the back three is particularly reward for Van der Merwe’s solid game and the muted performance from Kolbe.
As for the Boks, I thought they really missed Duane Vermeulen. I am not surprised they’ve brought in Jasper Wiese. Kwagga (Smith) is a fine player but he’s a mobile openside and it’s not the typical South African enforcer. As much as I rate Pieter Steph du Toit as a player, he looks more effective in the wider channels when there is that Vermulen type bossing the middle. Early on Eben Etzebeth was his usual physical self so I don’t know why the Lions were running upright into him and Mostert – they need to be running at kneecaps – but when the game started opening up and Maro and Courtney started carrying into holes, they looked a little bit lightweight in the back row.
Lions handle the pressure-cooker situations
What Warren will be most pleased about is even when they under extreme pressure, the Lions made the right decisions. It showed their big-game mentality. For example, when Alun Wyn Jones chose to go for the lineout even though it had been creaking and it led to Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try. That throw was near perfection and Courtney took it perfectly at the top of his jump, even though the Boks had read it perfectly. When Lawes landed their speed to set made me instantly think, ‘this is a try’ because the South Africans were upright, trying to wrestle and stop the drive with their chests but the back of the Lions maul won the battle for height and looked like a perfect scrum shape. Once they’d got into that set position it was impossible to stop.
The Lions held firm when they were under duress. Another time, Maro Itoje made that key turnover five metres from the South African line. I know a lot has been made of him not supporting his own bodyweight, but it can look like that when you’re slowing the game down and pause it for social media consumption. It looked pretty good at the time, so I think critics were clutching at straws. Had there been more of a competition from Boks clearing players out, it would have been questioned but because he was on his own, it looked so obvious that he was trying to hold onto the ball.
As for the kickers, well Dan Biggar and Farrell slotted the clutch kicks late on and that gave them precious daylight.
Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje are a perfect combination
After 10 minutes of almost non-stop rugby, there was a close-up of Alun Wyn Jones really blowing. He was literally reaching for his lungs but after he settled down, he put in the consummate performance. Every time there was some niggle, Alun Wyn was always a presence, looking out for Maro. I really like those two playing together and it’s no surprise Maro had his best game when AWJ was packing down with him. The Lions captain allows Maro to play to his strengths and he will do the hidden stuff that doesn’t go viral on social media. He allows others to shine. As well as Alun Wyn, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell joined an elite list of 10 players who have been on a winning Test side against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was such a luxury for Warren to have them on the bench. Players he knew weren’t going to crack under pressure. The French would do well to look at how well the Lions managed the last few minutes of that Test.
Backs to the wall for the Springboks
The Lions looked most rattled when the likes of Faf de Klerk and Eben Etzebeth were in their face and if the Lions start to get on top, that niggle will be ratcheted up a few notches. I expect it to be spiky and extremely brutal. The Boks have all got that extra level of fitness now, so it’s going to help level things up and I’m not surprised to see them reverting to a 6-2 bench. Gatland will spend all week reiterating the need for discipline. It is going to be a Test match for the ages.
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