The Springboks may have won Saturday’s first Test against the Lions but the international press are less certain as to who will come out on top at the end of the three-match series.
While a commanding opening hour from the world champions leads many observers to dismiss the Lions’ chances of a repeat of their 1997 success, the stirring fightback that almost brought the Lions’ an incredible victory has prompted others to suggest that the series is still there for the taking.
Here’s what the British, Irish and South African media had to say in the aftermath of the opening rubber…
Stuart Barnes in The Sunday Times
The Lions must produce the game of their lives if they are to level the series in Pretoria next weekend. That is the bad news. The good news is that they have the ability and, more importantly, the bravery to push the world champions all the way in rugby’s spiritual heartland of Loftus Versfeld.
Here’s the Lions perspective. The last 20 minutes proved the team have the mental courage, the skill and the tempo to win; that if they start as they finished in Durban, they will prevail in Pretoria. South Africa will have a different outlook. Peter de Villiers will point out how many of his star players were taken off around the hour mark, and that his side dominated proceedings while the juggernauts were in control.
Both are, in their own ways, absolutely right, which makes the match so fascinating, so thrillingly unpredictable. The Springboks will see the surplus of substitutions as well as the shortage of match practice as the keys to improving their game and closing out the series; that and sorting out the defensive problems in midfield through which the mesmerising combination of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll burst so often.
These factors apart, the Springboks will consider the first hour a more accurate reflection of the gulf between the two teams. This version of reality seems a closer approximation to the hard facts than the wild optimism of the almost unforgettable last quarter of the game. And yet, and yet, the Lions did lacerate the Springboks from first to last. Given more and better ball, there is plenty of reason to believe.
Patrick Collins in The Mail on Sunday
South Africa prevailed, and probably deserved to. Yet the Lions departed with heads high and jaws set in truculent defiance.
Barely beaten in Durban, the men of 2009 may yet be on the brink of immortality.
Paul Hayward in The Observer
South Africa were so shambolic by the end of this first Test that they had to send their captain back on again to restore order. It is a peculiarity of modern rugby rules that a substituted front-row forward can trot back on for another go, but the Lions were probably glad to see John Smit. His reappearance said this series is still alive.
Two months ago people thought this tour would end in a massacre. The world champions would scatter the four nations across the streets of Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. But then six wins against weakened provincial sides gave Ian McGeechan’s men the confidence to play a brand of Welsh-Irish rugby behind the scrum instead of going toe-to-toe with a fearsome Springbok pack.
That sense of adventure saved them from a caning here. It saved the tour, too. Five minutes into the second half South Africa led 26-7 and the thoughts of Lions supporters were turning to alternative forms of entertainment for the remaining fortnight of this trip.
Then two things came to the rescue. Three, if you count Springbok rustiness. First, the switch of South Africa’s competitive endeavour flicked off as they cradled a commanding lead. Then the Lions thrust a hand back into history and summoned an old force of will to gallop and pass their way back into the match.
The essence of Lions rugby was on vibrant display, even if this result amounts to a missed opportunity to strike a blow against the best team in the world before the circus moves to altitude on Saturday.
To be brutal, the chances are that the northern hemisphere’s representatives will lose 3-0, because the Springboks will not repeat their display of complacency when the Lions already seemed to be on the barbecue.
Alasdair Reid in The Scottish Herald
Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, might have a gift for pulling rabbits from hats, but he will have to produce the biggest bunny of his life to turn this series around.
And yet there was still a sense of hope in the ranks of the red army of Lions supporters who retired to the Durban bars on Saturday evening. The Springboks, seemingly rudderless in the final quarter until they reversed earlier substitutions and pitched captain John Smit and fly-half Ruan Pienaar back into the fray, may have left the door wide open, but the Lions still had the wit, courage and presence of mind to take advantage of the situation.
It was also perversely reassuring that so many of their troubles rested, quite literally, on the shoulders of one man. Not since the day when Tony Underwood found himself cast as Jonah Lomu’s personal rag doll has one player been so conspicuously humiliated by another as Phil Vickery was by Tendai Beast’ Mtawarira in this game. Directly, Vickery coughed up six points by conceding penalties in the scrum; indirectly the sight of his twisted frame must have inflicted massive psychological damage on his side.
The contest between the two props was a microcosm of the game as a whole. It posed the same sort of questions. Was it the brilliance of the Beast or the wretchedness of Vickery that had been decisive? Were the Lions really galvanised in the final quarter or did the Springboks go into meltdown? The arguments raged long into the Durban night.
In essence, the South African performance was a restatement of some old-fashioned Springbok virtues. To their power in the set-piece they added their mastery of the driving maul, a tactic revived by the law change that prevents the defending side from pulling down. Heinrich Brussow’s 47th minute try came directly from such a drive, although the Lions had been given forewarning of their opponents power a few minutes earlier when they had been shunted back almost 30 yards.
In the Lions camp, the glass-half-full analysis will concentrate on the fact they over-powered the Springboks in the midfield, where the partnership of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll grows with every game. Had scrum-half Mike Phillips managed to get his line moving more quickly they would surely have done more damage than they did. As it was, O’Driscoll set up flanker Tom Croft with two tries, with Phillips weighing in with one.
Peter O’Reilly in The Sunday Times
When the tourists were at their lowest ebb yesterday, early in the second half as South Africa’s lead went out to 19 points and there was carnage in the air, you wondered about the future of the Lions – not just this team, but the Lions as a concept. For all those money-making replica shirts in King’s Park yesterday, the thing that really stood out about the crowd was the number of empty seats — around 5,000 of them.
This was embarrassing more for the marketing and commercial people in South African rugby, who clearly set prices too high, but it also begged the question – if you can’t fill out King’s Park for the first test of a Lions series, what chance of selling it to the Australians, traditionally less enamoured of the whole Lions ethos, in 2013?
Whatever about the commercial future — and we are assured the Lions remain attractive to television, sponsors and relevant governing bodies — there’s a major problem if the team can’t win often, and there is a good chance that by the end of the series, the Lions will have won only one of 10 tests.
Still, the Lions legend was given a restorative jab by what happened in the final half-hour, a thrilling spectacle. Sure, Pieter de Villiers’ flawed replacement policy helped; this, rather than the Lions’ pluck and skill, was the main catalyst for change yesterday. But at least there is a decent chance that Loftus Versfeld will be full next week, if only because the locals will see it as a sure-fire opportunity to witness the wrapping up of a series victory.
David Hands in The Times
Within the space of 13 second-half minutes, South Africa used six of their seven replacements and almost turned the first international with the Lions on its head on Saturday.
One moment the Springboks were looking at a record margin of victory at the ABSA Stadium in Durban, the next they were hanging on grimly for the win that sends them to Pretoria looking to clinch the three-match series this weekend.
So much of this game was dictated by the power, the unexpected power, of the Springboks scrum, which clearly set out to dismantle the Lions at the point of what has, on this tour, consistently been their strength.
Even though they had deliberately picked ball-handlers over their power players, the Lions had to face up to the physical set-piece challenge and they failed. It did not matter that, in a first half when they trailed 19-7, they received far more scrums than the Springboks – eight against two – they could set themselves only a limited platform and it was the same at the lineout. Of the three South Africa successes in that area, two were on Lions ball.
Yet when the Springboks could and should have turned the screw, having put together two magnificent driven lineouts and forced Heinrich Brüssow over for a try, they were hoist by their own petard. For all that the video referee denied Mike Phillips a try, deciding that the ball had been jolted from his outstretched fingertips by Bakkies Botha, the Lions’ morale could have been shattered for the entire series if the Springboks eight had remained on the pitch.
Chris Hewett in The Independent
History dictates that if a touring team give the Springboks a 40-minute start, the chances of them making a little history of their own are so remote as to be practically invisible. Paul O’Connell and his Lions presented the Springboks with a valuable victory here in a sweltering Durban yesterday, imploding at the scrum and conceding a series of kickable penalties to the home side’s twin marksmen, Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn, in the first half. As a result, they will have to win in the even more demanding conditions of Pretoria next week to keep the series alive.
The last 15 minutes of a compelling match were little short of sensational as Tom Croft, the outstanding flanker from Leicester, and Mike Phillips, the scrum-half from the Ospreys, crossed for clean-cut tries. Had the tourists’ first-half performance been even a quarter as good as their effort in the final quarter – and had Ugo Monye, the Harlequins wing, capitalised on two gilt-edged scoring opportunities instead of letting both slip away – the score would have read differently. But ifs and buts mean nothing at this level. Cold fact is all that matters.
Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times
A bizarre, rollercoaster, frenetic, breathtaking match had threatened to be a humiliation for the tourists and almost became one of the most remarkable comebacks in Lions’ history.
Despite recovering from a 26-7 deficit early in the second half, after this first Test defeat in a sub-50,000, less than full Absa Stadium, the Lions face a task of Everest-like proportions in having to win both of the two remaining tests in the high veldt.
Hence, they will regard this as a missed opportunity. They were destroyed in the scrum, where ‘The Beast’, local cult hero Tendai Mtawarira (who bench presses 28 stone) did a number on Phil Vickery. The damage went beyond the tangible effect of six points on the scoreboard, and only after Adam Jones steadied things did the Lions outscore the Springboks 14-0 in the final half-hour.
They also had one try ruled out for crossing and had three more ruled out by the video referee – all legitimately – but given all this it was a chance lost and one they may not get again.
Dan Retief for Super Sport
The Springboks did enough in an impressive first 50 minutes to claim the all-important first test victory, 26-21, over the Lions in Durban on Saturday, but came close to throwing it away in an alarming final quarter.
The Boks led 26-7 after 47 minutes as they made the Lions look ordinary but then the South African coaches seemed intent on committing hara-kiri as they sent on a slew of replacements that had the effect of completely changing the tide of the game…Small wonder the Lions, far from being despondent, afterwards spoke confidently of their chances of squaring the series in Pretoria next week.
In the end it was mission accomplished for the Boks to go one up in the series – at the ground where they lost the ’97 rubber – but they know they will have to be much better at Loftus and Coca-Cola Park. Play like they did for the first 50 minutes on Saturday and it will be quite comfortable; play like they did for the last 30 and Paul O’Connell’s men will turn it around.