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Late Lions start with a win

The 2009 Lions overturned a half-time deficit to begin their 10-match tour of South Africa with a hard-fought win over a Royal XV on Saturday afternoon.

Ian McGeechan’s tourists secured a 37-25 victory thanks to tries from Tommy Bowe, Lee Byrne, Alun-Wyn Jones and Ronan O’Gara, together with 17 points from the impeccable boot of the Lions’ Irish fly-half.

The Lions left it late to ensure they got off to a winning start, with Jones crossing with just four minutes left to play before O’Gara cruised over with the final move of a nerve-wracking encounter in Phokeng.

Having only enjoyed two weeks together prior to the opening game in the Republic, the Lions began well but soon found themselves chasing the game after an impressive opening half hour from the home side.

With 11 members of the Royal XV having tasted Vodacom Cup success with the Griquas earlier this month and the remaining four starting players all coming from the Leopards, the Royal XV worked well as a unit and showed plenty of confidence as they opened up a 18-3 lead over Britain and Ireland’s elite.

Early tries from captain Wilhelm Kock and Rayno Barnes gave the Royal XV a commanding lead as the Lions struggled to turn their dominance in the scrum into territory and points.

Kock’s third try in senior colours came after deft hands from inside centre Hanno Coetzee following a lineout deep in the Lions 22. Décoy runners directly from the lineout appeared to leave the Lions confused, with Kock stretching over for a well-worked score that moved the hosts 8-3 in front after O’Gara and Naas Olivier had traded penalties.

Olivier added the conversion and another penalty to extend the lead to 10 points with just over a quarter of the match played, before Barnes powered through the middle of a maul to push the Royal XV even further in front after 26 minutes.

The hard-working hooker, who was one of the South African side’s most impressive performers throughout, capitalised on the IRB’s decision to reintroduce the collapse of a maul as a penalty offence as the Lions failed to halt his side’s forward momentum following a lineout just six metres from the tryline.

After scrum-half Mike Blair had come close to registering the Lions’ first try of the tour courtesy of a charge down of opposite number Sarel Pretorius’ box kick, the Lions finally hit back with a straight-forward score from Bowe.

The man who claimed the crucial try in Ireland’s Grand Slam clinching win over Wales earlier this year took an inside pass from O’Gara to slice through underneath the posts from just 10 metres out.

O’Gara’s simple conversion completed the seven-point score as the Lions brought themselves back to within touching distance at 18-10 just two minutes before the half-time break.

The Lions then began the second period the brighter of the two sides, with an O’Gara penalty closing the gap to 18-13 after 42 minutes before Shane Williams came within inches of a second Lions try six minutes later and then had another score ruled out for a knock on before the second half was 15 minutes old.

Despite appearing as though they would continue to claw their way back into the game, the Lions then suffered what looked as though it might be the killer blow as Royal XV claimed their third try of the match. Solid work and hard yards from openside Devon Raubenheimer and lock Jacques Lombard paved the way for prop Bees Roux to power over from close range.

Replacement outside-half Riaan Viljoen slotted the difficult extras to put the invitational side back in the driving seat at 25-13 with just 15 minutes left to play.

Fortunately for McGeechan and his fellow coaches, the Lions then showed true grit and determination to turn a likely defeat into a valuable victory at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.

Man-of-the-match Byrne capped a commanding performance with a fine individual try just a minute after Viljoen’s conversion, before Jones and O’Gara finished off proceedings with time running out.

After spotting plenty of space behind the Royal XV defensive line, the Ospreys full back gathered his own chip ahead to grab a much-need score on his Lions debut.

O’Gara made no mistake with the conversion and then added his third successful penalty to reduce the deficit to just two points at 25-23 with eight minutes remaining.

With the Royal XV visibly tiring, replacement second row Jones then finally ensured the class of 2009 would not become the first pride of Lions to lose their opening fixture in 38 years as he found a way through when defeat was becoming a real possibility.

This time the driving maul worked in the Lions’ favour as it provided the platform for sustained pressure after Lee Mears had found captain Paul O’Connell in the middle of a lineout in the Royal 22.

O’Gara’s difficult conversion from wide on the right left the Royal XV chasing a try just to level matters and the influential No10 then put the game beyond doubt as he rounded off proceedings with the Lions’ fourth try with the full 80 minutes on the clock.

Mike Phillips found fellow Welshman Martyn Williams on the edge of the 22, with the veteran flanker drawing three defenders and supplying a behind-the-head pass to the grateful O’Gara.

With their first victory under their belts, the Lions now turn their attentions to Wednesday’s game against their namesakes the Golden Lions in Johannesburg as they continue their build up to the three-Test series against the Springboks beginning on June 20.

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