Warren Gatland has set a classic 'rug pull' trap for the Springboks
If you are a Springboks player and believe you just played the real British & Irish Lions, then I have a bridge to sell you.
The physical, test-match level intensity brought by South Africa ‘A’ promised an appetising entree in what was dubbed the ‘fourth test’. Although, unfortunately the shadow box job performed by the Lions reduced the match to something far less. And that was certainly to be expected.
The Springboks needed minutes under the belt, the Lions, with nothing to gain from this match, reacted accordingly. Show me the incentives and I’ll show you the outcome. The Lions, without any incentive to play and all the reason to hide everything, did exactly that.
The first half from the Lions was an obvious con job. The endless penalty taps on the stroke of halftime and the barrage of pick-and-go carries into the South African line were almost laughable.
Even with the opposition down two yellow cards, the Lions refused to call a set-piece scrum or kick to the corner for a line out to take advantage.
The South African ‘A’, or basically the Springboks, were robbed of testing their goal line maul defence, and their multi-phase goal line defence against planned strikes or mauls in the red zone. Every single penalty inside the 22 was a tap and go throughout the entire match, by hooker Ken Owens none the less.
The British & Irish Lions were not going to reveal a single thing, an obvious ploy to leave the Springboks blind ahead of the test series.
Every set piece play that had to be run from midfield zone was just given to Bundee Aki to truck it up. Most of the midfield possessions were reduced to a box kicking contest between Conor Murray and Faf de Klerk. Anything more than two phases and Farrell or Daly would plug the corner or hoist the ball away downfield.
As if they needed a reminder of the ability of Cheslin Kolbe, a poor exit kick from Daly that failed to find touch cost the Lions when he cut them to pieces on a kick-return and set up Lukhanyo Am for a try.
This was after a poor cross field kick from Owen Farrell, with no advantage, ended up being charged down and scooped up for South Africa’s first try.
If this was a supercharged South Africa ‘A’ side, we just saw the British & Irish Lions ‘lite’ version, if you even can call it that. The game plan was watered down completely, particularly the first half, to hold all the cards close to the chest.
A game of cat-and-mouse mind games begun. And to be clear, just who is the cat and who is the mouse is unknown, as the Lions just dished up a half-volley inviting the Springboks to hit them out of the park and all they got was a four point win.
When the Lions finally started to play with the ball it took them just four minutes to score to open the second half, albeit with the opposition still down to 13-men.
Off the first set-piece play that offered any look at potential Lions’ plans, Anthony Watson sliced through the right edge once the ball was swiftly moved back to the opposite touchline on the next phase.
The Lions opened up the undermanned Springbok line with the first attempt at moving the ball using width. Wyn Jones crashed over a few phases later.
The Lions playing a mild version of expansive rugby found ground and gain-line any time they went to the edges, even with South Africa ‘A’ back to a full compliment once their players returned from the bin.
It wasn’t clinical by any means, but with one hand deliberately tied behind your back it isn’t supposed to be.
By finally throwing a few jabs, the Lions found out the Springboks are undercooked and lacking staying power late in the game after a blighted build-up to the series.
And that’s why Gatland was confident sitting in the post-match press conference, praising the ‘bullishness’ of his players after completing the shadow box training run. After denying them a second go-round on the weekend, they have everything they need to know.
Without Jaco Peyper taking the whistle in the test series, or Marius Jonker in the review box, the Lions will probably be even more bullish after being subject to their performances in Durban.
Maro Itoje getting penalised for sacking a lineout maul after going up the middle and Morne Steyn getting stripped of the ball and knocking it on were just two of the calls that went against them.
It took an age to send Faf de Klerk to the bin after a shoulder charge, while Peyper refused to get Jesse Kriel’s high shot looked at in the lead-up to Louis Rees-Zammit’s no-try, despite Owen Farrell asking him directly for a review. TMO Marius Jonker was nowhere to be found.
And then South Africa A’s scrum getting demolished on the final play but Peyper deciding for a ‘reset’ instead of awarding the visitors a penalty. Gatland must rest easier knowing they won’t play apart in the test series.
The Springboks themselves looked far better than most would have predicted given their circumstances, bringing trademark physicality and bruising hits before running low on energy later in the game.
Faf de Klerk back running the show from scrumhalf makes a world of difference to the speed at which the Springboks can play, even in the kicking game.
He can spot an opportunity from a mile away to use piggyback kicks after the first one is won back. The territorial swings are fast, and opportunities for his kick-chase to force pressure are dangerous to manage for the Lions.
Morne Steyn kicked well from the tee despite missing one long range kick and a drop goal, and offered a composed performance for the most part. It would be tempting to keep possibly the world’s best place-kicker in the starting line-up.
The brilliance of Cheslin Kolbe was once again on show, with just one opportunity he made them pay. And the Springbok pack brought everything you thought they would.
But deep down the Springboks camp will know they weren’t treated to anything near a test match by the Lions.
If they do think that can be used as a benchmark, they have been conned and Gatland has the rug ready to be pulled right out from under them.
Soon we will find out who is the cat and who is the mouse, but not from this game.
Or in a context that may make sense to Rassie, which of the proclaimed ‘Lions’ is Scar and which is Simba.
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