Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Dream Is Over

We have waited 4 years since the debacle of Sir Clive Woodward's Lions and yesterday the dream of keeping a series alive against the World Champion South Africans died as Morne Steyn struck a perfect penalty to win the game with the last kick of the match.

It was simply one of the best games of rugby I had seen. Brutal and physical, but full of passion, skill and commitment. It started as it meant to go on, with Schalk Burger lasting less than a minute on the day of his 50th cap before attempting to relieve Luke Fitgerald of his eyes. In rugby, the average advantage gained during the 10 minutes an opponent sits in the sin-bin is 13 points. The Lions came up short. In a half where the Lions dominated and particularly in the scrum where they had so horribly failed the week before, they failed to convert their determination into points and build up enough of a lead, which included a great try by Rob Kearney, courtesy of a sublime off-load by Stephen Jones. They even allowed the Springboks to close the gap to 8-16 at half time with a late penalty.

And that was where they lost the game.

You can argue that the two set-move tries were sucker punches that should have been defended were the killer blows but shortly after halftime, Bakkies Botha charged Adam Jones and dislocated the prop's shoulder - Jones had been playing an awesome game to have not just tamed 'The Beast' but to have dominated him. This single injury was significant as Gethin Jenkins also left the field and it led to uncontested scrums as the Lions ran out of specialist cover. It was from the clean platform of one of these crazy scrums that the Boks worked their set piece move to pierce the Lions' defence via the lightening quick Brian Habana. Had that scrum been contested and the pressure applied to the Springbok pack and scrum half, I doubt whether the try would have resulted.

As injuries took their toll, the fresh legs from the South African bench that had nearly been their undoing last week, brought new life into the Springbok game and particularly Brussow made his presence felt. It is a consequence of uncontested scrums that the bench becomes more important as you can swap props for quicker players. The Boks drove into the depleted Lions ranks and began eating into the lead. As the game went into the last 10 minutes, the Boks scored a superb try in the corner that required the TV Ref to decide if it was good. The preponderance of evidence showed from all angles but one that Fourie had scored, the only doubtful angle was the shot from the rear but it was rightly decided the foot seen to go out of play was not the ball carrier's.

The Boks took a 25-22 lead from this try. Even then, the Lions had one more play to give and Stephen Jones over-ruled Ronan O'Gara to take a difficult penalty. Jones was having simply the best game wearing a red shirt of any denomination in his life and, as the camera showed his view of the posts from behind him, you could have bet your house on his kick as he stood poised to strike. The ball soared between the posts to level the scores and it looked as if the series was poised for a dramatic final game in Johannesburg next week.

The Sprinboks laboured over getting the final blow in and when a loose kick fell to O'Gara, the Irishman, who was sporting a headband from a heavy collision as soon as he had come on, ran forward calling for others to follow to try and single-handedly win the game. He launched an up-and-under when all the clever money would have been to hoof the ball into touch and settle for a draw. To compound his mistake, he followed up and forgot to look up for the ball - either that or he deliberately made no attempt to catch his kick and just took the legs away from the South African catcher. The referee ruled the latter and he was right - it is one of the most dangerous things you can do in rugby. A penalty was awarded just beyond the 10 metre line for O'Gara's moment of madness.

The scene was set for the local hero, Morne Steyne, who had won his first cap only a week ago and had heroically dislodged the ball from Ugo Monye as he crossed the line to prevent a sure score. He eyed up the kick and looked as confident as a South African always is when one kick at the death is required. The penalty was beautifully struck and sailed sweetly between the posts to spear a few million British and Irish hearts.

2-0 to South Africa, and the pain of Jerry Guscott's drop goal 12 years ago was expunged.

So How Did We Lose?

In truth, the series was lost the week before. The Lions' fantastic fight back in the second half in Durban fell short. But they had been destroyed in the first half by an intense, physical battering in the forwards which left Phil Vickery's amazing career in tatters. 'The Beast' had quite simply worked him over and Lee Mears, who until that point had been player of the tour in my book, also copped the blame. But it was also the Lions' finishing which cost them. Even when they were taking the fiercest pounding, the Lions' backs scythed through repeatedly and Mike Phillips was denied a try by the slimmest of margins as he lost the ball stretching for the line while Monye crossed the line upright instead of at a dive - a schoolboy error of immense proportions as it allowed Steyn's superb tackle to save the game. Monye had also crossed the line earlier in the game and once again had failed to finish in clinical fashion. Two tough missed penalties for Stephen Jones added to the shortfall that was only 5 points at the death.

But that defeat should have been the platform for a Lions win at Loftus Versfeld yesterday - the Lions had found the way to beat the Boks and much of it was due to skills in the backs and fitness as the Boks were dead on their feet at the end despite 7 pairs of fresh legs. In the midweek, the Emerging Springboks had struck a further blow by drawing the game with the final kick, a prelude to the main event.

As a South African was at pains to point out to me, the Lions were playing kids who had not a test cap between them while the massed ranks of the Lions sported 617 in total and we still could not win.

And there you have it. South Africa did not become world champions for nothing. They have been led on the field no fewer that 57 times by the same man, John Smit, who personifies what it is to be a Springbok. He has swapped positions to become a prop and allow a good new hooker to come into the team - a switch of skills few attempt and never at test level. But that's what it took to get a better team. In Botha and Victor Matfield, the Springboks have the two best second rows in the world - they are magnificent at the line out, superb around the field and awesome in the scrums.

But it is the passion and intensity that makes them special. Yesterday, the Boks were well beaten in the first half and, as Smit revealed, they spoke 'some honest words' to one another at half time. When the whistle blew for the second half, it was an entirely different game. The Lions' backs were snuffed out as threats by some powerful, quick tackling while the scrum was 'fixed' by Botha's charge on Adam Jones, which reminded me of the tour-changing 'fix' of Richard Hill's nose by Nathan Grey in Australia in 2001. The match bristled with fights and contests - no one was ever going to take a backward step and least of all Simon Shaw, who at the 18th time of asking finally got his Lions test debut at the ripe old age of 35. He was simply awesome and played his heart out to be voted Man of the Match.

His line said it all - 'I would have rather have played badly for 40 minutes and been substituted at half time than to have lost and been man of the match'.

The teams go forward to Ellis Park, Johannesburg next week for the final match of a dead rubber. The Lions lost 4 major players to big injuries - their talisman Brian O'Driscoll was surely concussed in a collision with Roussow, the manful Jamie Roberts also left the field, Adam Jones will not play and Gethin Jenkins may well be doubtful. It means that the Lions will almost certainly lose the midfield pair that has been the linchpin of their best play on the tour.

The injuries mean that the first all Welsh Lions front row since 1955 will be the last for a long while and Phil Vickery may well find himself again facing 'The Beast' next week - it may be an opportune time to feign an old injury.

It will be an anti-climax rather than a party for the thousands of loyal Lions supporters who will attend next week's game. A seriously eroded Lions squad will have to muster enough players to have a match next weekend as the Springboks will want to administer a final coup de grace and exorcise the demons of 1997.

There are a few of us thinking about flying out for the game. Far from believing it's not worth it, we all think this Lions team has been superb and deserve our support. They have been to the den of the world champions and they came so close over the two games to dislodging their crown. The Boks have proved that it is not an easy thing to do. Pride is all the Lions now have left to play for.

Next week will be the final test of what has been a fantastic 6 week ordeal of learning rugby the hard way. Paul O'Connell was filled with emotion when interviewed at the end of the game, it meant that much to the Lions' Irish Grand Slam winning captain. If anyone can pick them up and drive them for one last massive effort in the name of the British and Irish Lions, he can.

As a final thought, the British fought one of the greatest rearguard actions in military history on the road between Johannesburg and Durban at Rourke's Drift. Amongst the several VC's awarded to the men of the South Wales Borderers that day was a one James Hook.

I say no more.

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