It started with a win, not the best performance but a win none the less! The British and Irish Lions beat the Royal XV 37-25 on Saturday, having trailed 18-10 at the break.
It could have been a lot worse. The Lions trailed 25-13 with 13 minutes remaining, as Riaan Viljoen’s conversion of Bees Roux’s try sailed over.
Lee Byrne (wearing his Adidas predator powerswerve rugby boots) produced a moment of individual genius to bring his side back into things though, and once Alun-Wyn Jones had crowned the return of the driving maul with a try, the result was safe.
The early part of the Lions’ game was as scrappy as you might expect six days into a tour, as Paul O’Connell confessed aferwards. Matthew Rees overcooked one line-out horribly and another went skew.
Out of four first-half scrums, two were stolen from Mike Blair by Sarel Pretorius, one was lost against the head and one was won convincingly. One out of four belies the superiority of power in the Lions’ set piece, but points very clearly to a lack of cohesion.
Poor Keith Earls could do no right on his Lions debut, spilling one scoring pass, another pass that might well have led to a try, another pass in the tackle, and a high ball.
The opposition was game and more importantly, had done its homework. Kicks were often covered before they had even been made, the breakdown and back of the scrum were mercilessly targeted and the running angles were clever. Naas Olivier had an excellent game at fly-half, varying the play well and asking all sorts of questions.
After an early exchange of penalties, the home side scored the first try through captain Wilhelm Kock, who took the second of two inside passes from Sarel Pretorius to drive his way over. Olivier converted for a 10-3 scoreline, then landed a penalty as the Royal XV capitalised on the tourists’ inability to hold onto the ball at the set piece.
A driven maul from a line-out – it was so welcome to see it used as a weapon again – then rresulted in the hosts’ second try, with hooker Rayno Barnes peeling off the back to rumble over.
The Lions‘ first piece of coherent action was a driven maul of their own on the half-hour mark, and they followed it up with another seven mintues later before Ronan O’Gara fed an inside pass to Tommy Bowe for a score under the posts.
O’Gara did land a penalty as the visitors upped their energy but still the cohesion failed to come. Shane Wililams dropped a ball over the line as he reached, after series of half-breaks failed to yield anythng substantial, but then came a couple of silly mistakes which conceded territory.
Then the near-disaster, as Devon Raubenheimer broke, set up a ruck, and Bees Roux took the pop pass to go over for a third try.
At 25-13 it looked bleak for the tourists, but Byrne’s chip-and-gather cameo and O’Gara’s conversion restored the scoreline deficit to five.
O’Gara clipped over a simple penalty as the tired opposition failed to retreat at a ruck, before a sapping driven maul from fresh Lions legs helped lock Jones over to claim the lead.
As the Royal XV tired further, Paul O’Connell (wearing his Adidas Flanker Rugby boots) stormed through a gap, fed O’Gara inside for a score that vastly imbalanced the scoreline relative to performance.
Man of the match: Lee Byrne stood out from his colleagues as looking fresh and assured all game, rounding it off with a try as crucial as it was magnificent.
For the Royal XV:
Tries: Koch, Barnes, Roux
Cons: Olivier, Viljoen
Pens: Olivier 2
For the Lions:
Tries: Bowe, Byrne, Alun-Wyn Jones, O’Gara
Cons: O’Gara 4
Pens: O’Gara 3
Royal XV: 15 Russell Jeacocks, 14 Egon Seconds, 13 Deon van Rensburg, 12 Hanno Coetzee, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Jonathan Mokuena, 7 Devon Raubenheimer, 6 Wilhelm Koch (c), 5 Jacques Lombaard, 4 Rudi Mathee, 3 Bees Roux, 2 Rayno Barnes, 1 Albertus Buckle.
Replacements: 16 Pellow van der Westhuizen, 17 Stef Roberts, 18 Rynard Landman, 19 RW Kember, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Riaan Viljoen, 22 Jovan Bowles.
Lions: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Mike Blair, 8 David Wallace, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Paul O’Connell (capt), 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Alun-Wyn Jones, 19 Jamie Heaslip, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Stephen Jones, 22 Riki Flutey.
Referee: Marius Jonker
Assistant referee: Jaco Peyper, Reuben Rossouw
TMO: Shaun Veldsman