Stringing together 19 points in a superior second-half display, the British & Irish Lions came from behind to beat South Africa 22-17 in a bruising and intense first Test in Cape Town.
CASTLE LAGER LIONS TEST SERIES – FIRST TEST: Saturday, July 24
SOUTH AFRICA 17 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 22, Cape Town Stadium
Scorers: South Africa: Try: Faf de Klerk; Pens: Handré Pollard 4
British & Irish Lions: Try: Luke Cowan-Dickie; Con: Dan Biggar; Pens: Dan Biggar 4, Owen Farrell
HT: South Africa 12 British & Irish Lions 3
Lions Test debutants Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan joined 2017 star Tadhg Furlong in the starting XV, and Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne both came off the bench to bring the Irish contribution to five.
Handré Pollard’s right boot was the key weapon for South Africa as they built a 12-3 lead, by the end of a cagey, defence-dominated first half.
Dan Biggar had opened the Lions’ account midway through, but both he and Elliot Daly missed efforts from the tee approaching half-time.
However, Luke Cowan-Dickie’s maul try in the 43rd minute lit the touch paper for a much-improved closing 40 minutes from Warren Gatland’s men.
Revelling in the physical exchanges, Courtney Lawes and player-of-the-match Maro Itoje starred up front as the Lions wrestled back momentum with sharper kicking and set-piece grunt.
An opportunist Faf de Klerk try briefly opened up a seven-point gap, but three more Biggar penalties – and a closing one from replacement Owen Farrell – made it a night to remember for the tourists.
A feverish opening few minutes saw both teams produce testing kicks, with the impressive Duhan van der Merwe and Cheslin Kolbe showing their ability in the air.
South Africa gained the greater attacking platform in the opening quarter, laying down an early marker with a big ball-dislodging tackle by Lukhanyo Am on Daly, his opposite number.
Lively scrum half de Klerk’s clever use of the boot got them into decent positions, and with Tom Curry slow to roll away, Pollard stepped up in the 13th minute to fire over his first penalty.
His second one followed four minutes later, with Itoje well tackled and coughing up a scrum before openside Curry was guilty of a late tackle on de Klerk.
Biggar cancelled out those three points with a surefooted long-range strike, but the ‘Boks continued to look the more dangerous side, their captain Siya Kolisi using a lineout maul to wriggle through up to just a few metres out.
Itoje’s vital penalty-winning intervention prevented the score on this occasion, yet further territory for the hosts led to centre Daly infringing and Pollard mopped up with three more points.
The penalties were really beginning to hurt the Lions, with Henshaw turned in a tackle and Trevor Nyakane getting his hands over the ball to win the decision. Pollard again was bang on target, from outside the 10-metre line, for 12-3.
A strong surge by Conan, during a penalty advantage, showed what the Lions could do when they attacked at pace in the wide channels. Anthony Watson also did some damage when it came his way on the right.
After the ‘Boks were guilty of standing up in a scrum under pressure from Furlong, Biggar narrowly missed his kick on the near side.
The gap remained at nine points up to the break, as Daly dropped a monster penalty short from just outside the halfway line and Henshaw, having cut inside Am on a brilliant break, was felled by Willie le Roux in a crucial tackle that produced a knock on.
Nonetheless, the Lions got the start to the second half that they craved. Kwagga Smith gave away a penalty, and another one – this time Henshaw was caught high in a tackle – brought the tourists even closer.
The maul duly did the damage, snaking through for England’s Cowan-Dickie to reach out and score. Biggar added the conversion to cut the gap to just two points.
The Lions had a big let-off, though, when the ‘Boks countered swiftly from a Lions kick, Am was fed by Munster’s Damian de Allende but le Roux, who went on to ground the ball for a possible try, was adjudged to be ahead of Am when he kicked through.
There was no denying the ‘Boks in the 49th minute as a vital TMO decision went their way. Again, they caused big problems in a kick chase, Pieter-Steph du Toit showing his running ability and avoiding a knock-on before Makazole Mapimpi did well to set up de Klerk to touch down.
There was no panicking from the Lions as, following Pollard’s missed conversion, number 8 Smith infringed at the breakdown and Biggar landed the kick for a 17-13 scoreline.
The ‘Boks were now leaking penalties with increased regularity, the Lions taking them through 11 phases with Lawes twice carrying forcefully. It all led to a third successful penalty from Biggar and a one-point game.
Heading into the final quarter, a slight knock-on from Henshaw in the air counted against van der Merwe as the big Scotland winger hunted down an elusive try.
The Lions took the lead for the first time in the 62nd minute when Biggar splits the posts from wide on the left, rewarding a strong lineout drive from his pack.
As the tension grew, the freshly-introduced Hamish Watson was pinged for lifting le Roux in a tackle. It gave Pollard a sight of goal from out wide, but he slipped his kick away to the left.
The Lions’ strength in depth grew in importance, a nicely-won scrum penalty coming after Henshaw did really well to tackle Am as the ‘Boks gained big ground up towards the 22.
Luck was on the Lions’ side when de Allende had a scrappy 71st-minute try ruled out from a prior knock-on in the air from Kolbe.
With Murray and Farrell at half-back, the Lions squeezed South Africa for territory, hanging up a number of contestable kicks and keeping play in the hosts’ half.
Their well-drilled maul produced the goods once more, securing the penalty that Farrell swept home from the right. The result was not safe until Itoje grabbed a last-minute turnover to end the ‘Boks’ hopes.
With his charges taking a 1-0 lead in what is set to be an engrossing Test series, Gatland said: “The message at half-time was that we were still in the arm wrestle.
If Dan Biggar had kicked that penalty (before half-time), 12-6. We were down 12-3 and had given away a few soft penalties to allow them opportunities.
“The message was, ‘keep our patience, stay in the arm wrestle, we will get chances, don’t try and force things’. As that second half went on, we got stronger and stronger and got ourselves back into the game.
“It was a really tough, tight Test match and the bounce of a ball, it could have gone any way. Thankfully, we’ve come from behind and finished really strongly. I thought we were excellent in the last few minutes.”
The Lions head coach added: “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, I would expect.
“From our point of view, you know that no matter what happens you’re going to the last weekend of the series. That keeps everyone engaged and really interested.
“This is a really tight group of players and our non-23 did a really brilliant job this week in helping the Test 23 prepare. The victory was as much about the whole squad as the guys who took to the field.
“We feel like there is a lot more in us. From a conditioning side, we look like we’re just getting stronger and stronger. That shows how hard we’ve worked over the last six weeks or so.”
TIME LINE: 13 minutes – South Africa penalty: Handré Pollard – 3-0; 17 mins – South Africa penalty: Handré Pollard – 6-0; 19 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: Dan Biggar – 6-3; 26 mins – South Africa penalty: Handré Pollard – 9-3; 30 mins – South Africa penalty: Handré Pollard – 12-3; 35 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: missed by Dan Biggar – 12-3; 39 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: missed by Elliot Daly – 12-3; Half-time – South Africa 12 British & Irish Lions 3; 43 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Luke Cowan-Dickie – 12-8; conversion: Dan Biggar – 12-10; 49 mins – South Africa try: Faf de Klerk – 17-10; conversion: missed by Handré Pollard – 17-10; 52 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: Dan Biggar – 17-13; 55 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: Dan Biggar – 17-16; 62 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: Dan Biggar – 17-19; 64 mins – South Africa penalty: missed by Handré Pollard – 17-19; 78 mins – British & Irish Lions penalty: Owen Farrell – 17-22; Full-time – South Africa 17 British & Irish Lions 22
SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Ox Nché (Cell C Sharks), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls), Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks) (capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo)
Replacements used: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears) for Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers) for Nche, Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers) for Nyakane (all half-time), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks) for Mostert (62), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse) for Smith (63), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers) for le Roux (66), Elton Jantjies (Pau) for Pollard (70), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers) for de Klerk (73).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs/Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath/England), Elliot Daly (Saracens/England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors/Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints/Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland); Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors/Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs/England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Ireland), Maro Itoje (Saracens/England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales) (capt), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints/England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks/England), Jack Conan (Leinster/Ireland).
Replacements used: Ken Owens (Scarlets/Wales) for Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola (Saracens/England) for Sutherland, Hamish Watson (Edinburgh/Scotland) for Curry (all 56 mins), Conor Murray (Munster/Ireland) for Price (63), Owen Farrell (Saracens/England) for Daly (64), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears/England) for Furlong, Daly for Biggar (both 66), Liam Williams (Scarlets/Wales) for van der Merwe (70), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Ireland) for Lawes (72).
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)