The World Cup-winning Springboks went to war under the banner of South Africa ‘A’ and tamed the British & Irish Lions in Cape Town in making an emphatic defensive statement on the eve of international rugby’s biggest three-Test series, writes Mark Keohane.
Defence wins big matches and wins big tournaments and series. That green jersey is also magnetic. This wasn’t an official Test match, nor an official Springbok team, but they were the Springboks in everything but name in beating the Lions 17-13.
And they won in the way the best Springboks side do, which is with unrelenting defiance in the tackle and in the collisions.
The South Africans were defensive monsters and we now officially are set up for a Test series that will be a physical war for the ages.
The first 38 minutes were as tough as any Test match the Springboks played at the 2019 World Cup and the South Africans looked as dominant and physically imposing as they did in Japan 21 months ago.
The intensity stunned the Lions and the Boks led 17-3 before the sin-binning of Faf de Klerk and Marco van Staden within the space of a minute left the Boks defending their tryline for the remainder of the first half and stoppage time, which lasted another two minutes, and a further eight minutes at the start of the second half.
The defence of the tryline was similar to what Boks did against England in the 2019 World Cup final in the latter stages of the first half. Back then England had the ball for something like 30 phases and they couldn’t break down the South African defensive wall. In Cape Town, many of the same South African players refused to give up a five pointer in the most astonishing five minute defensive period.
There was no crowd at the Cape Town Stadium and there was no Test match result on the line, but Rassie Erasmus’s South Africans played as if they were defending the honour of 55 million South Africans in refusing to take an inch back. It was a timely reminder of what make these South Africans so special. They love defending and they are arguably the most dangerous international team without the ball.
The Lions, despite a two player advantage in a telling period either side of halftime, had one five pointer to show in a match when they had enjoyed 62 percent of the possession and 65 percent of territory. The Boks would concede 15 penalties, with 13 of them coming within the first hour, but they held firm and not even having a scrumhalf on the wing and a centre at flank at the end could be their undoing.
The South Africans, whose only competitive match in the past 20 months was against Georgia in the past fortnight, showed tremendous courage and match conditioning. Tackling saps the energy and Lukhanyo Am and his mates threw themselves at anything and everything that wore red.
The Lions will offer more in next week’s first Test at the very same stadium. They predictably and deliberately didn’t give away much in terms of attack and the South Africans will be more settled and more confident because of the 80 minute hit out against such quality opposition.
Both teams will feel they got something from the match and the rugby public will have got the most mouth watering appetiser of just how brutal the next month of Test rugby will be.
The SA ‘A’ side after 35 minutes were totally disrupted, playing with 13 and then losing Pieter-Steph du Toit to a head knock, and the team that played the final quarter was without Willie le Roux, Damian de Allende, Du Toit and Jasper Wiese. Franco Mostert, starting at lock, would finish the match at flank, with utility back Jesse Kriel on the other flank and replacement scrumhalf Hershel Jantjies on the wing.
Winger Cheslin Kolbe was electric, and lock Eben Etzebeth was colossal and captain Am was inspirational.
Individually there will big wins on both sides, with Tom Curry and Owen Farrell make big statements for the Lions, but the overriding take away was that the South Africans, starved of Test rugby since beating England, are no less effective than they were when they won the World Cup.
The win is big for South African rugby, in the context of the tour and also the Test series. The Lions had made merry in the first three matches against inferior provincial opposition, and the test on Wednesday night was to see how they would respond to the physicality and intensity of the shadow South African Test side. In that first 30 minutes they looked shell-shocked and they only worked their way back into the match when they were playing 15 on 13.
It is the result South African rugby needed, if only to restore the confidence in these world champion players.
Mark Keohane and Moneyman called an SA ‘A’ win by 5 and 3 points respectively. They won by 4.