The Scottish Mail on Sunday
GIANT ITOJE DEFUSES THE BOMB SQUAD
Lions silence the Boks’ big hitters as they clinch series opener
THE sound of silence filled the full-mooned sky in Cape Town. No fans, no street parties and, most significantly of all, no South African bombs.
What became of those Neanderthalic behemoths, who go by the name of ‘the bomb squad’, that were supposed to come off the bench to finish the job?
Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje were the arch detonators. They muscled up, ripped the guts out of their opponents and turned defeat into victory. They stripped balls, counter-rucked and soared high at the lineout. The South African pack were humbled. Perhaps somebody had slipped Horlicks into Rassie Erasmus’s water bottles.
Outside the ground, the famous sea of red was barely a puddle. Four fans greeted the team bus. Two men in kilts, alongside Paul and Helen from Bolton. The only queue at the stadium gate was for the neighbouring McDonald’s drive-thru. The Lions had to create their own noise. On the sidelines, they whooped and hollered as the mini-battles on the pitch started to go their way.
‘The changing room was pretty raucous,’ said Lions coach Warren Gatland. ‘The boys are jumping up and down. It was a tough, tight test match, it was always going to be. We’ve got a chance of winning the series, so that to me is the biggest thing. South Africa will be hurt from this because they’re a very proud nation and world champions. Next week is going to be even bigger and tougher.’
Inside the bowels of the stadium, early hits echoed through the empty stands. In the second minute, Lukhanyo Am read a pass to Elliot Daly and left his shoulder imprinted on the centre’s ribs.
The blitzkrieg defence continued throughout the first half. Barked at by their coaches on the sidelines, green and gold defenders flew up to kill off the Lions midfield.
The pitch cut up from the very first scrum. Soil full of sand. At times, it looked like half of the beach from Camps Bay had been dumped on to the pitch. The shorter Boks front-row used their low frames — all under 6ft — to get underneath the Lions pack and allow Handre Pollard to kick the first penalty. Their second-half replacements looked nowhere near as effective.
For 40 minutes, it felt like the 2019 World Cup final all over again. South Africa squeezed their opponents and fed off their mistakes. Tom Curry was penalised three times in the opening quarter. Robbie Henshaw dropped the ball with the try line beckoning. Faf de Klerk launched box kicks from the very first minute. He often parked
the giant frame of Eben Etzebeth or Peter Steph du Toit in front of his left boot to prevent charge downs.
They piggy backed their way up the pitch, with Pollard out-kicking Dan Biggar to give the hosts a 12-3 lead at the break.
‘The half-time message for me was, “Look, we are still in this arm-wrestle even though we are down, just keep our composure”,’ said Gatland. ‘We also spoke about some of the soft penalties we had given away in the first half and making sure that our discipline was better in the second half, which it was.’
On came the bomb squad. Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe. World Cup winning giants. The same men who intimidated the likes of Lawes, Curry and Itoje in that nightmarish final in Tokyo two years ago.
But it was the Lions who set the tone. Curry sent Kwagga Smith flying as he chased a kick. Winning collisions, the tourists finally managed to knit together phases. They played with a gamblers’ instinct. Following a high shot on Henshaw, Alun Wyn Jones turned down three points and kicked for the corner. Lawes claimed the ball at the tail of the lineout, before Luke Cowan-Dickie scored from the back of the drive.
‘We mauled exceptionally well,’ said Gatland.
South Africa hit back, attacking off a loose pass in their own half. Lukhanyo Am’s infield kick was not dealt with and, with the cover defence at bay, De Klerk somehow got hold of the ball to score.
Any concerns that South African TMO Marius Joncker would give the closer decisions to the hosts, however, were short lived. Willie Le Roux had a try disallowed for the narrowest of offsides, Damian De Allende had a second ruled out for Cheslin Kolbe’s knock on and Hamish Watson dodged a yellow card for a tip tackle.
The Lions bench came on to squeeze out the victory. Conor Murray and Owen Farrell added calm authority, while Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler led the charge at the
scrum. ‘The impact of our bench was probably more significant than theirs,’ said Gatland. ‘That was pleasing and then the energy of the staff and players in the stands, encouraging our boys on turnovers or anything that was positive.’
Biggar kicked six more points before withdrawing with a head injury. Farrell added three more and the Lions clung on.
‘Let’s just keep the ball and win a penalty,’ said one of the Boks coaches in the stands as they attempted to grind out a late score. Their approach did not pay off. The fuse was lit on the South African bomb, but the explosion never came.
Gatland said: ‘Courtney and Maro’s impact was significant. The big thing was when we started to get some ball on the front foot. It just stopped a bit of their line speed, we were able to play through some phases and we got some reward from that.’
SOUTH AFRICA: Le Roux 7 (Willemse 66); Kolbe 6, Am 6, De Allende 6.5, Mapimpi 6; Pollard 6 (Jantjies 70), De Klerk 7 (Jantjies 73); Nche 8 (Kitshoff 41), Mbonambi 8 (Marx 41), Nyakane 8, Etzebeth 7.5, Mostert 6 (De Jager 62), Kolisi 6.5, Du Toit 7, Smith 7 (Elstadt 63).
LIONS: Hogg 6.5; A Watson 7, Daly 5 (Farrell 65), Henshaw 7, Van Der Merwe 6 (L Williams 70); Biggar 7 (Daly 66), Price 7; Sutherland 4 (M Vunipola 55), Cowan-Dickie 5.5 (Owens 55), Furlong 6.5 (Sinckler 66), Itoje 8, A W Jones 7.5, Lawes 8 (Beard 72), T Curry 6 (H Watson 55), Conan 7. REFEREE: N Berry (Australia).