Louis Rees-Zammit of the British & Irish Lions and Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa ‘A’ (Gallo)
They were ill-disciplined and ran out of puff in the second half, but South Africa ‘A’ still had enough ammunition to beat the British & Irish Lions 17-13 at Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday night.
With the Springboks collectively short on game-time thanks in part to the Covid-19 outbreak that rocked their camp, this fixture was used as an opportunity for those fit and well enough to play to get some high-intensity minutes under the belt.
The fact that there were 16 2019 World Cup winners in the match-day 23 made this more of a Test than a tour match in many respects, exemplified by the intensity of the hosts’ play.
As the match developed though, the Lions began to look like they were in control but, in truth, neither side will be overly impressed with their displays on the night.
Both coaches will surely agree that there is much to work on ahead of the 1st Test between the Springboks and Lions on 24 July, but there was still more than enough on Wednesday to suggest that the upcoming series will be fiercely contested.
SA ‘A’ went scoreless in the second half, but they scored two tries in the first period through Sbu Nkosi and Lukhanyo Am that gave them a 17-3 lead at the interval despite being down to 13 men at that time.
It took less than one minute for Eben Etzebeth to floor Liam Williams with a monster hit and the Lions wing, who was a late replacement for Josh Adams, was not able to recover and left the field shortly afterwards.
The hosts, buoyed on by Rassie Erasmus on the sidelines operating as a waterboy/on-field coach once more, were carrying the ball with immense physicality, while scrumhalf Faf de Klerk kicked a noticeable amount of possession.
Wing Nkosi was awarded a try after just five minutes, but replays showed he had put a foot in touch and 37-year-old Morne Steyn kicked a penalty from the previous advantage to put his side 3-0 up.
As the SA ‘A’ side also began dominating on the ground, it became very clear that the Lions were in for a very different challenge to what was posed by the South African franchises the Lions and Sharks (twice) in their first three tour matches.
This was a tougher test in every aspect, and when Etzebeth charged down a kick from Owen Farrell on 13 minutes, Damian de Allende gathered and released Nkosi, who finished off clinically.
Steyn slotted from the left touchline, SA ‘A’ were 10-0 up and the British Lions were rocked.
The tourists settled somewhat and took their opportunity for points on 28 minutes as Farrell kicked over from close range, but easily the most electrifying passage of play of the 80 minutes came soon afterwards through a moment of individual brilliance from Cheslin Kolbe.
Having received a kick well inside his own half, Kolbe did what he does best, reminding of the match-stunning ability that made him this country’s hero in 2019.
Kolbe danced and stepped his way past two Lions defenders and drew in another two – he took four tacklers out of the game – before offloading to skipper Lukhanyo Am, who took the ball at pace and went over.
The Steyn conversion left SA ‘A’ 17-3, but it was the Lions who finished the half strongest, bashing away at the SA ‘A’ line with wave after wave of attack that took the mind back to England’s inability to capitalise on their period of dominance against the Boks in the 2019 final.
The Lions resorted to taking quick taps while SA ‘A’ lost both De Klerk and flank Marco van Staden to yellow cards, but still the tourists couldn’t get over the line.
The Lions, with the two-man numerical advantage, also started the second half with plenty of enterprise on attack and in promising positions.
Eventually, after another quick tap, loosehead prop Wyn Jones went crashing over from close range as the Lions got their reward.
Farrell converted to reduce the deficit to 17-10 and leave the game hanging in the balance as the Boks were still down by two men.
Even after SA ‘A’ welcomed De Klerk back onto the field, the Lions began to find more rhythm and momentum on attack as the hosts’ ill-discipline continued to cost them.
Farrell narrowed the gap to 17-13 on 51 minutes with another penalty, suggesting the tide was turning and that the men in red were getting a grip on proceedings.
Both sides had their opportunities in the final 30 minutes of the match – Steyn missed a penalty and pulled a drop goal – but neither could disrupt the scoreboard.
The match limped towards the final whistle, with mistakes from both sides plaguing the last 20 minutes.
But if this was an indication of what is to come, then we’re in for a blockbuster battle from next week onwards.
South Africa ‘A’ 17 (17)
Tries: Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am
Conversions: Morne Steyn (2)
British & Irish Lions 13 (3)
Try: Wyn Jones
Conversion: Owen Farrell
Penalties: Farrell (2)
South Africa ‘A’
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Sbu Nkosi, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes (from): 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Jesse Kriel, 23 Damian Willemse
British & Irish Lions
15 Anthony Watson (England), 14 Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), 13 Chris Harris (Scotland), 12 Bundee Aki (Ireland), 11 Liam Williams (Wales), 10 Owen Farrell (Wales), 9 Conor Murray (captain, Ireland), 8 Taulupe Faletau (Wales), 7 Tom Curry (England), 6 Josh Navidi (Wales), 5 Iain Henderson (Ireland), 4 Maro Itoje (England), 3 Kyle Sinckler (England), 2 Ken Owens (Wales), 1 Wyn Jones (Wales)
Substitutes: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), 17 Mako Vunipola (England), 18 Zander Fagerson (Scotland), 19 Adam Beard (Wales), 20 Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), 21 Sam Simmonds (England), 22 Gareth Davies (Wales), 23 Elliot Daly (England)