The social media spat between the two camps head honchos: Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus was decisively won by Gats, which gives the Lions first blood in this unusual Lions Test series.
Willie le Roux’s disallowed try and Hamish Watson’s unpunished yellow card tip-tackle engineered a 7+ point swing that ended up a bridge too far for the brave but decidedly undercooked Springboks.
The pressure Warren placed on the match officials by throwing his toys out the cot in a tantrum about the match officials worked a charm and was cleverly leveraged by the streetwise Wyn-Jones on the field which gave the Lions first blood in this enthralling chess-like series.
Round one to Gatland’s troops but kudos to Rassie and his men to take it on the chin without any excuses to congratulate the victors and slink off to lick their wounded egos and plot their revenge, which is very much in the pipeline.
After getting the rub of the green during most of the ’19 WC campaign; it seems the tide has started turning against Rassie’s charm offences and that his “Kool-Aid” has passed it sell by date. It is important however to remember that this is but the first act in a three-part drama unfolding on our screens.
What a fascinating match to watch as it ebb and flowed. The Lions’ unexpectedly disjointed opening stanza against a well oiled Bok machine circa ’19, just for the momentum to slowly swing as the undercooked Handré Pollard tried and missed two kicks to leave five additional points on the table, on top of the officials’ blunders.
As the game went on, his and Faf de Klerk’s pinpoint kicking game started fraying; causing a ripple of butter fingers and brain fades from the Boks that proved their ultimate undoing a rugby drama for the purists.
The Lions game plan finally started bearing fruit as the vaunted Bok “bomb squad” turned into a damp fizzle with their introduction suddenly giving the Lions pack the upper hand on the gain line to transfer the pressure onto the Boks.
This was typified by the highly active but totally unproductive Quagga Smith’s outing. How the Boks missed the steadying, assured ironman presence of Duane Vermeulen.
For the bomb squad concept to work, it has to fire on all cylinders. I personally think that the two years from the big stage have pushed Frans Malherbe way past his sell by date; from being ever present in the broken phases and on defence; he was nowhere to be seen on Saturday.
The back line bench was introduced into a losing cause but didn’t cover themselves in any glory; both the Jantjie’s folded under the pressure.
On the Lions side, I was impressed with the leadership and assured presence of Wyn-Jones and the effervescence of Ali Price at nine while Duhan Van der Merwe gave an assured display and Anthony Watson always threatened with ball in hand.
Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes made hay because of the absence of Duane Vermeulen in the broken phases. Sadly the Elliot Daly experiment was an abject failure outside a rusty Robbie Henshaw, with changes surely coming for the second Test.
I’d bring back the assured Liam Williams at 15 and team Josh Adams with van der Merwe. I’d replace Dan Biggar, who was battered a bit, with Owen Farrell and bring Harris in for Daly.
Henshaw will be better after his first real outing in a while and Harris could provide the missing link to unleash Adams and van der Merwe.
In the forwards I’d start Owens and bring a bit more bulk in with Faletau for Conan; the Bok pack has been wounded so they will have to weather the coming storm…
On the Bok side; I’d drop Malherbe and Quagga Smith from the squad completely and start with Kitshoff. Francois Louw’s influence in securing late turnover ball is sorely missed and I’ll bring Marco van Staden onto the bench and lastly promote Jasper Wiese to start at eight for more go forward and solid defence.
At the back; I’ll introduce Reinach as a wild card game breaker from the bench and Frans Steyn’s assured presence to back up Pollard with Jessie Kriel to cover the outside back positions.
One thing is for sure; whichever way the two head Mandarins choose to spin act two of this three part drama; the physicality and intensity will be a ratcheted up from last week and it promises to be a titanic clash.
Fascinating stuff, this game of Test-playing chess, isn’t it?