As far as big games go, the first test of every Lions series is a real highlight; potentially my favourite game of Rugby aired each four year cycle. Bigger than Premiership finals, international grudge matches, heck, it's up there with the World Cup Final. Four years of speculation, disruption and light ribbing comes to a head in a brutal first encounter that really tests the steel of both sides. This week has been palpable, with Gatland blasting the TMO choice and Erasmus' water carrying ability, and Erasmus firing right back over squad tactics and strategies. The Lions Tour is usually a pretty fun occasion spoilt my media depravity, but this time around the coaches are firing off shots without the media needing to be so brainless; apart from Franno who was deservedly given his marching orders after some woeful comments about Marcus Smith. Anyways, back to the game. Down the boozer with friends I hadn't seen in 18 months, and new friends brought together by Rugby in a new area I've just moved to, its as good as it gets. Did the game live up to expectations?
We knew this would have been the case heading into this match, as both sides showed their metal in the A fixture last week, but this was ferocious. The tight five of course put in the majority of the crowd pleasing booms, but Am and De Allende also put in some steamers on the Lions centres. Biggar was also incredibly impressive in defence, putting in his signature all or nothing scrags, but also setting the line efficiently. As the game grew on, neither side really lost concentration, and although South Africa had a couple of clean breaks and disallowed tries, they largely came from mistakes in the midfield, something Lions desperately need to tighten up as its become a constant through this series. Kolbe was given no space, Van der Merwe couldn't really break through, it was only really Watson and Le Roux who looked like they could cut through. Special mentions have to go Alun Wyn Jones and Courtney Lawes for being gain line behemoths throughout the game.
The Dreaded Scrum
I hate to say it, but the South Africa's biggest weakness is their scrum; not something I could have imagined stating 18 months ago. Sutherland and Furlong were tough as nails throughout the first 50, chewing up the opposition and even getting the upper hand on the bomb squad as they entered the fray. It didn't really weaken when Sinckler and Vunipola came on, and outside of a single call, Lions were rigid and stalwart in defence and ate up the Loosehead side in attack. It helped having the considerable bulk of three second rowers behind them, but it largely came from good technique. South African props are notorious at getting away with murder when driving inside at scrumtime; keeling in is their specialty. But the force coming from Furlong meant that every time they tried this, they were going backwards making it obvious to Berry.
The Kicking Battle
Again, we are splitting hairs here when identifying who has the upper hand. Both sides were near perfect off the tee, with an uncharacteristic silly miss from Pollard in the second half, and a slight pull form Biggar being the only blemishes on a near perfect record. From hand, both sides had very different tactics which both kind of worked. De Klerk box kicked pretty much every other phase, and it did give Van Der Merwe and Hogg a lot of problems, however, the kicks were a little too shallow and it felt like they were taking unnecessary risks in making simple hard yards. South Africa looked pretty threatening in attack, and I think they desperately needed a replacement at 9 to change the game as the momentum was running away with them towards the end of the match. Lions did the opposite, and largely played a territorial game, likely because of the South African back three's fairly average hoofs. As a pundit, you'd say that's a bad idea because you are constantly giving free ball to Kolbe in space, but he was largely ineffectual. Although the majority of their kicks did push SA back to playing in wrong area of the pitch (with over 40 percent of the game being played between the SA 22m and 10m line), some were a little long and little wasteful.
Carrying in the Tight
This game was largely won in the fringes, which again, is a game of small margins. It was a surprise to see the Lions win this battle, and South Africa stick to the process instead of spreading it wide which is where they looked most threatening. Big carries from Furlong, Itoje and AWJ constantly kept the Lions on the front foot, especially in the second half. It was impressive to see how displined th South Africans were in the tight though, rarely giving away penalties and not biting too hard on the turnovers. I think Aki might be a potential started for next game, as the Lions chose to even cut back against the grain with Daly and Henshaw to exploit weak shoulders around the ruck; it didn't always make ground, but it did force South Africa to spread people like Du Toit wider in case they did choose to spread it; it was an evasive strategy that worked well to push the SA big hitters too far wide.
Maro Itoje - Deserved MotM for his turnovers and general disruption, best performance we've seen from him since the RWC.
Alun Wyn Jones - Another workman like performance, good hits, important carries, hard yards, and proper leadership.
Dan Biggar - Kicked well, distributed when necessary, tackled hard, just hope he hasn't conked himself out with the injury.
Eben Etzebeth - Although he wasn't at the level of the Lions locks, he still looked imposing in defence and barely gave up a yard.
Anthony Watson - Didn't get much ball but mopped up some hairy scenarios with great footwork.
Faf De Klerk - Just kicked a little too shallow and didn't really get the edge on Price which was pretty surprising.
Kwagga Smith - Put in a massive shift but gave away a handful of game-changing penalties.
Photo copyright @TheIrishMirror