Cheetahs – 24
British & Irish Lions – 26
“Momentum” appears to be the key word in the 2009 Lions tour judging from the various interviews and press conferences. After two victories from two matches the tourists sought to build on their early momentum and keep their 100% record intact. The goal was achieved but the visitors were certainly made work for it. Had the Cheetahs been more ruthless with their goal kicking O’ Connell’s men could have been mourning their first defeat.
With twenty minutes on the board and the scoreboard reading 0-20 in favour of the Lions one could have been forgiven for expecting a rout similar to that on Wednesday night, no-one was expecting the tourists to add only 6 more points in the remaining 60 minutes. This was not by any means the result of a capitulation by the men in red, credit must go to the home side who played to their strengths and made life extremely difficult for the Lions who were also hampered by a woeful refereeing display from Wayne Barnes.
After Hook gave the visitors the lead with a confidence building 3-pointer, Ferris put some daylight between the sides pouncing on a lose ball in the Cheetahs and showing the same burst of acceleration as on Wednesday night to waltz beneath the posts unopposed. Earls put last weeks nightmare behind him and announced himself on this tour with a glorious score. Hook’s delicate chip evaded the rush defence and the limerick man collected before slicing through two tackles to send the Lions on their way to a comfortable victory, or so it seemed.
The reasoning behind Mcgeechans selection was obvious, a big powerful pack to dominate the scrum and breakdown, bash over the gain line and provide a clean platform for an inexperienced back line bursting with pace. What the Scotsman hadn’t counted on was the excellent scavenging work on the floor by the Cheetahs led by the immaculate Heinrich Brüssow and the erratic refereeing of Barnes. The English official repeatedly allowed the Super 14 side to slow Lions ball down at ruck time and missed numerous illegal turnovers. Frustrated, the Lions lost discipline conceding penalties and field-position.
The sin-binning of Stephen Ferris was undoubtedly a turning point, not least because Ferris had been the most impressive player on show early on. The Ulster back row was harshly sent to the sideline for lying on the wrong side of the Cheetahs first attack. While down a man the Lions leaked 14 points. Tries from Demas and du Preez were converted by Strydom and Potgieter. A penalty from Hook sent the Lions in leading 23-14 at half time.
The home side succeeded in reducing the second half to a dogfight. Taking full advantage of Barnes’ selective blindness the Cheetahs collapsed scrums, flew into rucks from all angles and refused to allow the Lions run through the phases. The visitors got their own tactics wrong as too often forwards, in particular Powell loitered in the back line and stuffed the ball up the jersey denying the flyers like Fitzgerald and Earls the chance to exploit space. It was a difficult outing for the young back line who got scant opportunity to show their attacking threat.
Entering the final quarter, the Lions seemed to be building up a head of steam. Hook and Byrne were winning the kicking contest and the Munster duo O’Callaghan and O’Connell were tormenting the home line out. As they searched for the crucial score to kill the contest the Lions suffered a crushing setback when the out of form Williams threw a shocking interception pass to centre Uys who had enough gas to finish. Two points separated the teams after Potgieter slotted the conversion and a serious upset was on the cards.
Despite some late nerves, epitomised by a rare knock-on by Lee Bynre, the tourists held on to make it three out of three and add to thier momentum. Unlike the Royal XV victory, today’s triumph was an impressive fete for the Saturday squad. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect the young midfield of Hook, Fitzgerald and Earls to combine to as devastating effect as Jones, Roberts and O’Driscoll, especially considering the greater challenge posed by the Cheehtas than the tame Golden Lions.
On Wednesday the Golden Lions allowed the B&I Lions to boss the breakdown giving Philips clean ball to unleash his back line. Today the Lions really had to fight for every inch on the floor leading to slow ball. The breakdown is quite possibly where this tour will be won and lost. A Springboks team with Berger, Smith and Spies will be fiercely competitive at the breakdown which is why Mcgeechan must get his backrow combination right.