The British and Irish Lions drew first blood in the series against South Africa after fighting back from nine points to win at halftime.
The tourists were adrift at halftime after Handre Pollard’s four penalties. But whore Luke Cowan-Dickie scrambled over from close range four minutes after the break to turn the tide.
Faf de Klerk’s sloppy effort briefly restored the world champion’s kisses, but Dan Biggar’s boot and the tourists’ superior fitness brought them home.
The Lions survived a late attack when Owen Farrell’s penalty was followed three minutes before time by a desperate last-ditch attack from the hosts as they searched in vain for an equaliser.
With the next two Tests to be played at the same sea-level venue, rather than Johannesburg as originally scheduled, the Lions will return to Cape Town’s stadium in seven days in search of the kill and South Africa’s first series win since the iconic 1997 success.
South Africa’s winless streak in the city now dates back to September 2014. The hosts, who have played just one test in 20 months, will wonder how the game and momentum slipped away from them after a controlled and controlled first half.
Henshaw fails to hold on to rare first-half opportunity Twelve years ago, the Lions were caught cold by a Springbok blitz of hits and heft in the first Test. On that occasion, they got a try within the first five minutes and were 19 points behind early in the second half.
Lukhanyo Am scored a massive hit on Elliot Daly in midfield, but overall the 2021 Lions more than matched their hosts physically in the opening exchanges.
Instead, South Africa’s shrewd spades, forcing the Lions to play from deep, and the occasional indiscipline of the tourists, Tom Curry and Elliot Daly, the chief of the culprits, gave Handre Pollard four shots on target and the Boks one. 12-3 lead in the half hour.
Biggar and Elliot Daly both missed opportunities to clear the deficit from the tee, before Robbie Henshaw squandered the best opening created on either side in the last minute of a restrained half.
The Lions center remained clear on a blind-side break after Biggar’s fast hands beat South Africa’s rush defense. However, with options on both shoulders, Henshaw couldn’t get a pass before fullback Willie Le Roux drove the ball out with a great cover tackle.
It looked like it could be expensive. Instead, it was a sign of things to come. Play started in the second half with Cowan-Dickie burrowing on the back of a rolling maul that steamed through the heart of the Springbok pack four minutes after the break. The Lions rarely looked back.
The TMO takes center stage Lions coach Warren Gatland had taken a close look at South African video official Marius Jonker earlier this week, asking why there wasn’t an alternative neutral TMO when New Zealander Brendon Pickerill couldn’t go to South Africa travel.
The spotlight fell on Jonker with two hair-long calls in the space of two minutes after Cowan-Dickie’s score.
First, Jonker overturned referee Nic Berry’s decision on the field, ruling out an attempt by Willie Le Roux for offside that only he could see for sure.
Shortly afterwards, Jonker saw no evidence of a knock-on by Pieter-Steph du Toit, as Makazole Mapimpi’s forward kick caused chaos and De Klerk fell into the fray. But that score couldn’t stop momentum from slipping out of South Africa.
The hosts, who played only their second test since their Rugby World Cup final victory in November 2019, looked long on fatigue and short on stamina. Their vaunted bomb squad front row – Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff – did not deliver the expected lead in the scrum when they came off the bench.
And Lions’ coach Warren Gatland’s confidence that South Africa would disappear if they kept up the pace and the ball was finally confirmed in play, much to the delight of the whole squad who took to the pitch at the final whistle.
Same time, same day, same XV? Gatland and his coaches came to their roster meeting earlier in the week with just seven unanimous picks in their various starting lineups.
In the unlikely event that Maro Itoje wasn’t one of them, he sure will be when the backroom reunites for the second test.
England’s second-row, a talisman figure in the draw against New Zealand four years ago, reigned supreme once again, scraping every inch and looting a bad luck ball, including a critical turnover in the shadow of his own posts.
Courtney Lawes was a more contentious choice on the back row. But his abrasive ball-carrying and work ethic saw him work his way into the ascendancy as the match progressed.