The famed 2019 World Cup-winning Springboks bomb squad was back in business in Cape Town on Saturday night in silencing the roar of the British & Irish Lions. But even bigger than the bomb squad was Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, writes Mark Keohane.
On 35 minutes, I thought the Springboks were done in this Test and in this series. The Lions, only 9-6 ahead, looked decidedly in control. They had field position and they were dictating how the game was being played. They had disrupted the Springboks lineout, taking two of the four throws, and they seemed to have the edge in the physical confrontations.
Then came Siya Kolisi’s series-defining moment with the most powerful of tackles on Lions centre Robbie Henshaw, which saved a try and saved the match for the Springboks. Tests aren’t won by the 35th minute, but they can be lost before half-time.
Kolisi, inspired in his captaincy and as imposing in his performance, found that something special that will spoken about in a 100 years and when he had emptied the tank to be replaced on 72 minutes, he must know that no matter where the game was being watched, South African supporters would have stood and applauded.
Bok coach Jacques Nienaber and National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, the game’s most spoken about waterboy, once again showed their tactical mastery in getting every substitution spot on, while the revert to a six forwards and two backs substitute’s bench proved a masterstroke.
Lood de Jager was immense when introduced at lock and Franco Mostert proved his all-round versatility in starting at lock and finishing at flank, with Marco van Staden on the other flank and Kwagga Smith at No 8 after injury had finished Pieter-Steph du Toit’s Test midway through the first half.
The front row selections were genius, with Trevor Nyakane (at loosehead) and Vincent Kock (at tighhead), combining with Malcolm Marx (at hooker) to deliver the knockout blows at scrum time in the final quarter.
Those last 20 minutes were as emphatic as you can get in a Test match. The Boks had all the momentum, all the control and got all the reward.
Referee Ben O’Keeffe, who refused to be rushed in any of his decision-making, referred anything he felt needed addressing. He communicated clearly with his assistants and TMO Marius Jonker but ultimately he made the decision based on what he had seen in real time, combined with input from the TMO and his assistants. He trusted his decision-making and a first half that took 62 minutes to complete, was one in which there was consensus that the right calls had been made.
I tweeted at halftime, with the Lions leading 9-6, that O’Keeffe had been a class apart in his officiating, so it isn’t a case of a compliment coming after the Boks had won. The acknowledgement of O’Keeffe’s performance came with the Boks losing.
The Lions, without an advantage in the scrum in the second half, and with the Boks starting to find an extra gear in the collisions, buckled and with each penalty conceded the Boks could build scoreboard pressure through Handre Pollard’s boot.
The lineout also finally started becoming a weapon for the Boks, with De Jager’s imprint all over the improvement.
This is an incredible result for the world champion Springboks when you consider that, outside of a one-off Test against Georgia in June, they had not played a Test in 21 months before the series started. They had to overcome 26 squad infections for Covid and, in the build-up to the first Test, Kolisi and Pollard only arrived in Cape Town on the Monday, having had to isolate in Gauteng for 10 days.
The Bok conditioning shone in a final 20 minutes when all logic would have prescribed to them folding.
But fold they didn’t on this fantastic night for the Springboks and for the series because it means we all get to tune in next Saturday for a decider the equal of a World Cup final.