The Lions went after the biggest weakness in this Springboks team
The game plan to beat the Springboks isn’t pretty, but it has been visible for some time.
Highlighted by New Zealand and Wales during the World Cup in Japan, the Springboks often struggled in the air throughout that tournament. In the humid conditions, the drop rate in the South African backfield was high, with Cheslin Kolbe really the only safe pair of hands.
The high ball was certainly the Achilles heel of a Springboks defensive system, and the aerial game was the perfect tonic to neutralise the hard-hitting front line. A smart kicking game can effectively make the Springboks’ wall redundant, something that England failed to realise.
You don’t have to go through the defence, you can go over it time and time again.
Every time the ball is hoisted in the air, the defensive line is turned around and has to chase back, unsure whether they will be on attack or defence when the ball comes down.
If you win back possession, that defensive line is scrambling to reset and nowhere near as solid as it is when playing a predictable attacking shape.
With the Springboks defensive line being the strength and their aerial game the weakness, why would you do anything different?
This is exactly how Wales went about their semi-final two years ago under Warren Gatland, ultimately coming away just three points short but showing some chinks in the armour. New Zealand used it to score two quick strikes and win their pool game. Stay away from the lineout and play contestable kicks.
When Wales were accurate with their kicking and generating contestable balls in Yokohama, it led to points and opportunities from territorial gains off regained possession.
As the British and Irish Lions toiled hard against a solid Springboks defence for nearly 40 minutes, they could not find a crack.
Elliot Daly at centre was punished behind the gain line on nearly every carry, hammered by Lukhanyo Am in the second minute from the first set-piece launch. The Lions were giving away penalties unnecessarily, such as Tom Curry taking Faf de Klerk out after the kick leading to frustration.
The Springboks were winning the territorial arm wrestle and accumulating threes to bend the game in their favour.
Although there wasn’t much between the sides, the Lions certainly didn’t seem to have a tactical advantage and struggled to go forward against a fierce defence.
And then, on the stroke of halftime, a sign.
Ali Price hoisted a box kick inside the opposition half that Kolbe could not bring in under the pressure of a Duhan van der Merwe contest. Moments later, Price sent nearly an exact replica sky-high that was fumbled by Pollard, leading to a Lions penalty.
Two-from-two, with the key feature being pressure in the form of a contest.
It was like the Lions had found the cheat code to unlimited metres on the Springboks.
Starting the second half, Price hoisted away an exit box kick, asking Kwagga Smith to clean up a bouncing ball.
Penalised for not releasing under the swarming Lions kick-chase, they earnt a piggyback penalty deep inside the Springboks 22 from which they kicked to the corner again and rolled the maul over for the first try of the game.
It was the worst possible start to the half for the home side, giving up over 80 metres and seven points in a heartbeat.
The Springboks could have got one back from their own kick recovery moments later but a counter-attacking try to Willie le Roux was rubbed out. The pass from De Allende was more questionable than the offside call, which looked slightly forward, but the offside decision did no favours for Marius Jonker’s officiating as TMO.
They did get a long-range try to Faf de Klerk from a period of unstructured play after a wild pass from Pollard went 25-metres backwards and a few Lions defenders took some poor angles as the Springboks ripped through and made them pay.
After the Lions returned with a Biggar penalty, again they went to the box kick from the restart to ask the Boks again to catch under pressure. This time Courtney Lawes recovered the bouncing ball to streak away downfield to spark the Lions and before long it was 17-16 with another Biggar penalty.
More free metres and points from the inability of the Springboks backfield to diffuse.
It was no surprise to see Price go for another contested box kick directly after the kickoff, resulting in another calamity and Lions re-winning possession.
A few phases later, Biggar hoisted a bomb that ended with Van der Merwe streaking away towards the try line only to be called back for a Lions knock-on.
Robbie Henshaw and Van der Merwe towered over Kolbe underneath it and it was only a matter of which Lions player was going to come down with it. Unfortunately for the tourists, Henshaw got a touch first.
The Springboks, stuck in the quagmire deep in their own half, had no option to exit giving the Lions the ball back and another three points was on the way, with the Lions taking the lead 19-17.
In a little over 20-minutes, taking the supercharged aerial route gave the Lions 16 points. The Springboks lost all control in the match as a bombardment of box kicks tested their catching skills.
When Conor Murray came on, the barrage did not stop. His first two kicks were dropped by Kolbe and Mapimpi, giving the Lions key territory and possessions late in the game.
Elton Jantjies spilt an Owen Farrell bomb which would have been a free mark inside his own 22. They had no option to clear the lines and then concede a penalty from the proceeding line out maul.
Up stepped Farrell to clinch a five-point advantage with two minutes to go to force the Springboks to score a converted try to win the game, which they were held off from doing.
The Springboks were destroyed in the second half through the air.
Tactically, the Lions exposed the biggest flaw in this Springboks team – catching and handling. They turned the game into a battle of skills rather than brute strength and power and then did not let up when the South Africans couldn’t handle it.
The best team in the world is expected to win, period. You have to win in multiple ways and can’t rely on a one-dimensional game plan. You have to be strong in all areas to withstand different challenges. If you can’t, you’ll be knocked off your perch.
When you get thrown something different, you can’t capitulate.
This was always going to be the challenge for this Springboks group. They hadn’t proven to be the complete package. This wasn’t a dominant period of success yet. They hadn’t won in multiple ways and put together an 85-90 per cent winning test season.
The World Cup run wasn’t conquering all before them, far from it. It was a great achievement but it wasn’t the sole right to greatness. It must be earnt every day. And in their first real test as World Champions they fell apart in a 20-minute period under the high ball.
You can point to this call or that call but there aren’t any excuses for champions, and to their credit they aren’t making any.
But if the Springboks want to remain the world’s best in 2021, nothing short of turning around and winning the series is required from this 1-0 deficit.
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