After the tourists fell to their first defeat of the tour, what have we learnt ahead of the Tests
What South Africa A match tells us about Lions series
The British & Irish Lions 2021 tour ignited on Wednesday night, as the tourists faced a South Africa A side at near full Test strength. Fourteen of the starters had previously been capped, with five of the seven backs having started the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
After four previous tour matches in which the Lions had significantly outgunned the opposition, the clash in Cape Town was an acid test for Warren Gatland’s side.
The South Africans emerged from the attritional contest with a result, achieving physical dominance in the first half and being rewarded with tries from Sbu Nkosi and Lukhanyo Am. Despite the Lions seizing the initiative in the second 40, and scoring through Wyn Jones, South Africa A held on for a 17-13 win.
Sky Sports billed the game as the unofficial fourth Test – but with a little over a week to go until the start of the full Test series, what has this game taught us about the way in which the Springboks will play, and how the Lions will cope?
What South Africa A match tells us about Lions series
Lions need to raise their physicality and accuracy in the clear-out
Watching the first five minutes was sobering viewing for any Lions fans. After two minutes, the South Africans won a jackal turnover. After four minutes, two Lions defenders were counter-rucked by three South Africa A defenders. Every significant collision was being won by the hosts, with Franco Mostert particularly impressive. At the end of the first half, they had won six turnovers to the Lions’ two and were 17-3 up.
It had major repercussions for the Lions’ attacking fluency. Unable to retain possession over multiple phases, every half-break saw the Lions attempt to go for broke, trying to turn that phase into a score. Offloads from the floor weren’t going to hand and countless cross-field kicks from Owen Farrell failed to find their mark.
A totemic performance from Tom Curry, backed up by Maro Itoje and Wyn Jones, managed to grant the visitors parity for periods of the second half. They’ll need far more physicality if they’re to win the Test series.
South Africa’s kicking game superior
Under pressure and forced to turn to their kicking game, the Lions ought to have still been in decent shape thanks to their half-backs – game-managers extraordinaire Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.
However, the experienced duo failed to fire, being comfortably outperformed off the boot by the triumvirate of Faf de Klerk, Morné Steyn and Willie le Roux.
Murray’s box kicks went too short, Farrell’s up-and-unders went too long. Their ability to use the kicking game as an attacking weapon was negated by poor execution. Thanks to le Roux’s positioning and the wingers’ pace, even Farrell’s clearances struggled to find the angles to reach touch.
Both South Africa A tries came from poor kicks. After 12 minutes, Farrell attempted to chip the ball over the 6ft 8in frame of Eben Eztebeth. Not a good idea. Nkosi streaked away after an excellent blocking line from Damian de Allende.
Ten minutes before half-time, Murray spurned a chance to box kick, which his coach publicly bemoaned after the game. The ball was spun along to Elliot Daly, who was put under pressure by Pieter-Steph du Toit. With his aim forced infield, a weak effort was fielded by Cheslin Kolbe, who spotted man-on-man defence in front of him. Game over.
Battle of the 13 channel key to both sides’ attacks
With the centre of the pitch dominated by a ton of Springbok beef, both teams resolved to capture the edge – the space around the 15m channel. This match saw possibly the best two defensive outside-centres in the world do battle: Lukhanyo Am and Chris Harris.
Harris was beaten for Kolbe’s try, but ultimately enhanced his Test credentials outside the quiet Bundee Aki. His distribution was excellent, managing to use quick hands on several occasions to beat the trademark solo blitz from South Africa’s wingers. Anthony Watson had an excellent game, but much of this was thanks to the Scotland centre.
Meanwhile, Am was more than capable of shuffling over to make a cover tackle. While Harris’s cover defence relies on his length, Am structures his defence around exceptional position and an explosive pre-tackle step. He imposed himself on Daly in the second half having scored South Africa’s second try in the first.
Lions scrum more than holding its own
Having seen the Lions pack be dominated physically in the early exchanges, forwards coach Robin McBryde would have been forgiven for watching the first scrum through his fingers. Surprisingly, his hands would have ended up clapping by the end.
While neither side were marched backwards in the set-piece, the Lions managed to extract three penalties from referee Jaco Peyper.
MORE ON THE LIONS TOUR
In-depth analysis of the Test series, plus a…
Riots in South Africa add tension to Lions…
Loosehead Wyn Jones was the big winner, coping admirably with a tag-team of Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch. His pressure forced the South African props to overextend, although the build-up to the first Test may well include discussions about Jones’s ‘jaunty’ angle of engagement if selected.
The Welshman now seems in pole position over Mako Vunipola and Rory Sutherland, although Vunipola’s tackling off the bench merits a mention.
Kyle Sinckler was typically prominent with his pull-back passes in the loose and crucially avoided the set-piece wrath of Steven Kitshoff. Like four years ago, he’s likely to back up Tadhg Furlong in the Test series.
South African indiscipline something that the Lions can exploit
The Lions scrapped their way back into the match during the second half, helped by the territory afforded them by a succession of Springbok penalties. At one point after 60 minutes, the penalty count was 13-5 in the tourists’ favour. It’s rare for teams to win Test matches when they give away 15 penalties, the number South Africa A conceded here.
This indiscipline could have been exploited far more effectively by the Lions, notably at the end of the first half. South Africa were down to 13 men, yet Gatland’s side chose to pick-and-go despite enjoying scrummaging success. South Africa held them out, preventing the Lions closing to within a score.
Possibly more significantly, high tackles are threatening to become a major narrative during the Test series. Views over Faf de Klerk’s yellow card were wildly divergent, while Lions fans were shocked that Jesse Kriel’s late tackle on Chris Harris wasn’t punished by the TMO.
With the levels of aggression on display, a red card in at least one Test match feels likely.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.