James Hook may have rescued the Lions on Saturday afternoon but there were mixed feelings among the British, Irish and South African press.
Some said the nature of the victory showed the Lions’ true character, others claimed a weakened Western Province exposed an array of weaknesses on which the Springboks will feed.
Here’s what the media men made of the 26-23 victory in Cape Town that kept the tourists’ 100-per-cent record alive with the Test series just a week away…
Gavin Rich in the Sunday Tribune
At last, a bit of a crowd, some atmosphere, some spirited opposition, and some sense that we are watching a British & Irish Lions tour.
Visiting coach Ian McGeechan said on Friday that this would be his team’s biggest test so far. Some of us, seeing the inexperienced faces and names in the Western Province team, chose to disbelieve him.
However, McGeechan was proved correct, with the wet weather playing into the hands of a team that relies so heavily on the prodigious field and goal kicking boot of Willem de Waal.
The kicking game of WP negated the hitherto dominant defensive system of the Lions, and questions were asked of them that have not been asked previously on this tour.
The challenge the Lions faced in this match required them to put more emphasis on their kicking game, which is sure to be in the fore at King’s Park in seven days time, when the Lions square off against the Springboks.
Stephen Jones in The Sunday Times
A late and glorious long-range penalty in a swirling wind dragged the Lions through this compelling match in Cape Town. So soon before the first Test, it might be deemed an alarmingly shaky win. Yet there is no panic in the Lions camp because this was the match that set the tour on the road.
Western Province were superb. They came to compete and, as Luke Watson, their captain, said afterwards, they came to enjoy the “awesome experience” of playing against the British & Irish Lions. They even ditched their silly Super 14 nickname, calling themselves simply Western Province in honour of the grand history of tour matches between the two teams.
So they were worthy opponents and a Lions team containing only four or five likely contenders for the Test side did well enough to win. The Lions scored three excellent tries, there were some remarkably effective performances, they kept their heads and their spirit was massive. They may only have scraped through, they could conceivably have lost, but it was a day to savour.
Ian Stafford in the Mail on Sunday
Martyn Williams, Joe Worsley, Nathan Hines and James Hook provided Ian McGeechan with just the selection quandary the Lions head coach has been craving yesterday in Cape Town, where his team sealed a fifth win out of five with Hook’s long- distance penalty four minutes from time.
With the first Test against South Africa in Durban now six days away, McGeechan had much of his starting XV confirmed by the hard-fought victory in difficult wet and windy conditions.
But he also now has the happy problem, when he sits down to pick the Test team with his fellow coaches after the final warm-up game on Tuesday, of some fierce competition for places.
More candidates have emerged in the forwards, while there is a genuine two-way battle to back up stand-off Stephen Jones, who did enough to warrant his berth on his way to scoring two penalties and a conversion.
Chris Hewett in the Independent
The Lions, so impressive in the midweek games, suffered another bad dose of Saturdayitis at Newlands yesterday, struggling to put away a Western Province side with precious little form behind them and shorn of four Springboks, including the influential centre Jean de Villiers and the stellar flanker Schalk Burger. At the end of a tight second half, the tourists needed a 50-metre penalty from James Hook to secure victory and maintain their 100 per cent record with the first Test a week away.
Liam de Carme in the South African Sunday Times
The Lions might still be unbeaten at the halfway mark of this tour and their Test team might be taking shape, but for the tourists it must be just a little disconcerting that their Saturday side continue to resemble dirt trackers.
Unlike their midweek maulers, the Saturday side continue to stutter. Yesterday, again, they got themselves into a tight spot before they skilfully extricated themselves.
This time it was the turn of Western Province to suffer a close 26-23 defeat to the visitors, who led 18-12 at the break.
If the Lions had much to glean from their midweek performances in terms of attack, it is the weekend outfit that have provided the guts and collective will in times of crisis. Those are the characteristics that will stand them in good stead in the Tests.
Phil Vickery’s side found Western Province surprisingly plucky and were made to sweat before a James Hook penalty got the tourists home with little to spare.
Eddie Butler in the Guardian
For a moment, the Lions were cruising through the murk, with tries, one straight after the other, by Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye. The right wing’s name is already etched into the Test team and Monye took another step towards making the No11 shirt his.
Perhaps that was the problem. The Lions, now a fair-weather side after all that altitude and sunshine in Rustenburg, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Durban, had grappled, after a slippery start, and come to terms with the swampier conditions at Newlands. They were purring and places in Durban were perhaps more on their mind now than the need to complete the job in Cape Town.
(Andy) Powell had made his mark, (Martyn) Williams had played a typically fluent part, (Rob) Kearney was issuing a challenge to Lee Byrne, and Bowe was Bowe. Monye was also to add his name to the list of players obeying the order to give Ian McGeechan a headache in selection.
Add to that other bits of off-loading by Nathan Hines and the line-out work of Donncha O’Callaghan and it was all causing more delicious pain for McGeechan.
Three beautiful tries, a hat-trick of little jobs. The trouble was, the big job remained unfinished.
At the breakdown, there was a tendency to present the ball too late – one of Powell’s weaknesses as he strove to make yet one more foot of progress. Support players were pinged for going to ground; Williams was penalised for entering from the side before he stole the ball.
They were all marginal offences, but interpreting the referee’s wishes is one of the keys to the series. The Lions are not yet fluent in ref-speak. This has nothing to do with the referees being South African, but is all part of the difficulty of making one coherent unit out of four parts.
Dan Retief in Super Sport
Western Province shook the Lions with a gutsy defensive play and clawed their way back from a 9-18 deficit. In the end it was a tale of two reserves and a crucial error by Willem de Waal as the game came to a dramatic end.
James Hook joined the fray in the 64th minute right after Joe Pietersen’s only try for Province had levelled the score and was immediately called upon to attempt a long-range penalty. In the swirling gusting conditions the ball fell off the tee, forcing him to rush his routine and he missed.
The Lions were looking decidedly anxious and there was a key moment as Duane Vermeulen and Andy Powell crashed heavily into each other – chest to chest and sending the Province man flying.
It seemed a harsh call when Powell was penalised, but with the clock having moved into the last ten minutes, De Waal, who had kept his team in the game with adroit tactical kicking, made a bad error by failing to find touch and putting the ball across the goal line where the Lions were able to dot down and kick off from the 22.
Lawrence made another critical call when he ruled that Ugo Monye had been in the tramlines when he attempted a quick touchline throw-in to himself but WP were unable to make the most of an attacking situation close to the Lions’ line.
Now enter the second replacement to play a key role – loosehead prop JD Moller.
Moller came on in place of Wicus Blaauw to face Euan Murray and failed to bind at his first engagement, causing the scrum to go down.
Referee Mark Lawrence then moved around to his side of the scrum and when Moller again refused to bind the referee raised his arm to award the Lions a penalty.
Having seen other long-range kicks fall short because of the blustery wind it seemed that the Lions would have to kick to touch but Hook indicated that he would have a go. Again the ball toppled over, again he steadied it on the tee, and then delivered the purest of strikes to bisect the uprights and get the Lions out of jail.
Nick Cain in the Sunday Express
The Lions were caught in the eye of a Cape of Good Hope storm as they received the most thorough examination of their credentials a week ahead of the first Test in Durban.
The Lions were worthy of the win after outscoring the locals three tries to one, and they had man-of-the-match Tommy Bowe to thank for putting them on the road to victory.
If the 2009 Lions lack star-quality then somebody forgot to tell Bowe, and the Irish wing sounded a warning blast to the Springboks with a world-class performance.
Ever since Lions head coach Ian McGeechan announced his squad for South Africa there have been murmurings that this side lacked a sprinkling of stardust.
But Bowe, an Ulsterman who plays for the Ospreys, took wing to light up a grey afternoon, scoring the tourists’ first try on 28 minutes and then setting up a second for England’s Ugo Monye six minutes later.
Bowe’s heroics helped the Lions to an 18-12 half-time lead, laying the foundations for this narrow win in their fifth match of the tour.
And the upshot is that Bowe, who was in sparkling form when scoring two tries in the midweek romp against the Golden Lions 10 days ago, now looks a certainty to start the Test series.