4 matches played, 4 matches won. Regardless of some mixed performances, McGeechan will be delighted with this return. Last night the tourists faced what was billed as their toughest opposition before locking horns with the Springboks. Beating the Sharks by a margin of 36 points can only serve to bolster confidence, even if their opponents were missing key Springbok players. While the victory was hard-fought and well deserved there were lessons to be learned for the visitors.
A 7-3 score line at halftime in no way reflected the absolute dominance of he Lions. Far too often the men in red failed to put points on the board when in striking distance of the Natal line. A reluctance to spread the ball wide coupled with uncharacteristically slow supply from Philips rendered the Lions first half assault one-dimensional. The home team defended admirably, particularly at the breakdown where they seemed to know what referee Caplin would and would not allow better than their European counterparts. As commonly happens in rugby however the team on the back foot began to tire, hit tackles with less ferocity and were slower to rucks, the net result being four second half tries for the Lions.
The breakdown is where this tour is going to be won and lost. Unfortunately for the Lions, South Africa are the masters of the breakdown and will see this as an area to attack the tourists. Henrich Brussow of the Cheetahs single-handedly demolished the Lions at the breakdown last Saturday and consequently forced Geech’s men onto the back foot. Again last night the Lions were frustrated at ruck-time. The Sharks possessed a natural scavenger in openside flanker Deysel who repeatedly disrupted Lions ball. Although the visitors were more aggressive on the floor than last Saturday one wonders how they will cope with the Springboks dream back-row of Burger, Smith and Spies.
If the Lions cough up even half as many penalties in a test match as they did last night they stand no chance. Southern Hemisphere refs take a different approach to the breakdown to what the tourists will be used to but they need to adapt. While Kaplan was painfully inconsistent in his ruling of the breakdown and scrum there is no guarantee the test matches will be better adjudicated so Gatland and Edwards need to iron out any potential creases in the Lions breakdown approach.
Outside of the pack O’ Gara used his boot to good effect but probably should have kept ball in hand a bit more considering the strength of the centre partnership. Roberts and O’ Driscoll were immaculate again even if BOD showed his in failing to go all the way after intercepting 70 metres from the line. Fitzgerald looked much more comfortable at 11 and gave Monye something to think about by rounding off a solid performance with a try. Byrne cemented his place on the test team and Williams cemented his place on the non-test squad.