So the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa kicked off on Saturday with the tourists facing the Highveld Royal XV, a team compiled of players from five small provinces. The script was already written, Lions to win by fourty points and the tour off to a flawless start. What wasn’t in the script was for the men in red to be 25-13 down with thirteen minutes to go. Does this, in some way make the victory more impressive? The fact that the Lions had a real battle in their first outing and came out on top, surely thats a good thing? Not quite!
Of course some rustiness and nerves are expected in the opening Lions’ match but one also expects to see some individual flare, some early desire and a glimpse of cohesion from the two weeks of training. Instead it took an inspired performance from Lee Byrne at full-back to drag the visitors over the finish line. The Welshman was the only player to truely put his hand up and prove to McGeechan that he is ready for the test series. It was his outstanding try that inspired the comback before Alun-Wyn Jones and O’ Gara touched down to seal a victory the Lions barely deserved.
McGeechan always like to take a gamble on these tours, bring someone not quite proven at the highest level. Keith Earls personified this in the ’09 selection. The limerickman has been magnificent for Munster this season and has been one to watch in Irealnd for years, but little is known of Ealrs across the pond and from an Irish perspective you really hoped he would justify the coach’s selection but proving his skill. Unfortunately the 21 year old seemed well and truely overwhelmed by the occasion. With 20 minutes on the clock Earls had knocked on four times including an easy mark in his own 22 and a straight-forward pass from Shane Williams which would have put Earls in the clear on the wing. While the youngster did little wrong for the remainder of the match those early mistakes were too basic and will be at the forefront of McGeechan’s mind.
The early signs were actually quite positive for the visitors. Jamie Roberts was effectively deployed as a battering ram in midfield busting over the gain-line at every opportunity, giving the Lions good go-forward ball. Early penalty opportunities were turned down in search of seven points and one wondered if the Lions needed to respect their hosts more. This was answered on 17 minutes when Royal XV captain Wilhelm Koch collected a delicious offload from Hanno Coetzee to barge over for the afternoon’s first try.
The Lions were stunned and the Roayl XV sensed a hisortic upset. Suddenly the home side were pulling all the strings, with half-backs Pretorius and Olivier conducting looking a top-class pairing. It was just reward for their pressure when Barnes sprung from the back of a maul to score the second try.Rattled and in need of a response before half-time the Lions surged upfield with Roberts and Earls carrying well. After a rolling set the platform Blair fed O’Gara who slipped the deftest of inside passes to Bowe who crossed under the posts for the first Lions try of the 2009 tour.
After a first half plagued by errors the Lions showed more composure in the second half but were hampered by poor finishing. Camped in the Royal XV 22 for most of the third qurter the tourists spurned numerous chances, most noteably when Shane Williams knocked on inches from hitting the whitewash. Having yielded no pints from such a dominant period the writing looked on the wall as Bees Roux finished off a good move for the hosts with 66 minutes gone. Cue Byrne’s super-try and telling substitutions by McGeechan and the Lions found thier lucky escape.
There are some positives to take from the game; Byrne was imperious at full-back, Roberts was a threat every time he touched the ball, O’Gara kicked brilliantly and showed a cool head when the game seemed to be slipping away despite woeful supply from Blair, Bowe was solid, Sheridan was effective in the loose and the tight, the scrum was ruthless although Wallace was surprisingly shakey.
The main negative; if the Lions play like that again on this tour they will lose comprehensively.