Mauled: Let's be under no illusion - Lions were second best
Monday June 22 2009
Whether it was the opening hour (dominated by the Springboks) or the final quarter (owned by the Lions) that provided the better barometer, the bottom line was a bitterly disappointing start to the three-Test series for the tourists. You can play around with post-match statistics all you want. So yes, while Paul O'Connell's side did dominate possession (56pc), did force the 'Boks into a three-to-one tackle count, did monopolise the advantage line (crossing 32 to 9) and did take the try count (three to two), the harsh reality is that the better side playing the more realistic rugby over the greater portion deservedly took the spoils.
South Africa did what they had to do when securing primary possession. They took the set piece -- line-out and scrum -- with sufficient comfort to enable coach Peter de Villiers indulge in tactical arrogance that almost cost his side the match. By giving all of his replacements a run from the 53rd minute on, he effectively turned the trend of the game to that point on its head.
Aside from the brilliant centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll, the Springboks dominated every other position. It made the 19-point gap (26-7) representative of the Springbok intensity up to that point. David Wallace did provide one encouraging first-half burst but, Roberts and O'Driscoll apart, it was pretty depressing stuff from a touring side expected to hit the ground running.
By comparison, it was the under-cooked and under-prepared 'Boks who took the initiative from the off. If there was one imperative to first-Test -- and perhaps series -- success, it was that the Lions had to lay down the early marker. In the end, de Villiers' sideline decision-making almost cost the world champions dear.
For Ian McGeechan, there is no such solace. Yes, they were on the receiving end of the penalty count -- not by dint of numbers (13 to 12) -- but more by the context in which they were awarded by referee Bryce Lawrence. The unfortunate Phil Vickery was the focus of the match official's attention and however hard done by he, O'Connell or any other Lion felt, the reality was of a front row in trouble and a scrum under pressure. Adam Jones' second-half introduction did steady the ship, making tight-head the most obvious area in need of address for Pretoria on Saturday.
The line-out wasn't a lot better, conceding three on their own throw. That said, if there is a more athletic lock pairing than O'Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones on tour, then I haven't seen them. I accept that both are primarily middle-of-the-line jumpers but, given Saturday's experience, the Welsh man can adapt.
Of more immediate concern is the back row, with Tom Croft's brace of well-taken tries adding to the confusion. For me, a place must be found for Martyn Williams. Whether that means with Wallace at six (unlikely, given Croft's Durban performance) or the Munster man moving to eight and Jamie Heaslip losing out, the balance in the back row is in need of re-assessment. If impact off the bench is the logical aim, then Williams must start with Wallace and Andy Powell coming off the bench - that makes the most efficient sense.
At 26-7 down on Saturday, it was hard to equate any reserve on the Lions bench with potential impact over and above the player he would replace. Mike Phillips will continue at scrum-half but whether it's Stephen Jones or Ronan O'Gara alongside depends on the pre-ordained plan. If it is to return to basics then the case for O'Gara is overwhelming. If not (and here expect Jones' contribution to Saturday's midfield impact to be central) then the backline will return en bloc apart from likely inclusion of Rob Kearney if Lee Byrne can't recover from injury.
Tommy Bowe, Roberts and O'Driscoll have all earned that automatic right but Ugo Monye will have an anxious wait ahead. The logical pressure should come from current World Player of the Year Shane Williams but tour form (not green-tinted I might add) ought to dictate Luke Fitzgerald's name to be in the next Test frame.
I firmly believe the rounded and more compact Fitzgerald would have copper-fastened one, if not both, of the try-scoring opportunities that came Monye's way. Add these to Phillips' second-half goal-line spill and it represents six clear-cut opportunities in all.
My own fear is that the Lions' management will read too much into the last quarter. When it really mattered, the ring-rusty Springboks were comfortably the better side. More to the point, they will be much the better for the full 80 minutes in Pretoria.
And yet, in a strange way, defeat makes for a better-focused touring party, with many of those not involved in the Test 22 harbouring match-day aspirations now. That in itself is no bad thing. Incidentally, with just over two minutes to go and trailing by five points (26-21) the penalty decision should have been taken to kick for goal, but instead they went for the jugular in the corner.
As for the Television Match Official, and I make this comment with the greatest respect to Christophe Berdos (next Saturday's referee), surely it is the most obvious component that match officials speak the same language. The difficulty and potential misunderstanding between Frenchman Berdos and New Zealander Lawrence governing the TMO's decision on Monye's first-half failed try (called rightly in Jean de Villiers' favour) should not arise. Lawrence, with the aid of Berdos, deserves great for ruling on the spot and calling the 22 re-start as he saw it.
One final point. Apparently some 5,000 seats remained empty on Saturday. It is a poor reflection on everyone involved that, seven games in, world rugby's biggest brand, in South Africa for the first time in 12 years, still await a full house.
- Tony Ward
Maze of Monkey Illusion - 2009
Optical illusion maze caused by conflicting horizontal and vertical lines.