Loftus will be a desperate affair

2009-06-22 00:00

THE Springboks might have gained the critical first Test win at King’s Park on Saturday, but they have as many problems as the British Lions going into the second international at Loftus this Saturday.

For almost an hour, John Smit’s South Africans looked to be heading for a decisive first Test win, but it was the final quarter when the Lions fought back from a 19-point deficit to go down 26-21 that will be lifting the tourists’ hopes and bothering the Boks.

“It showed,” said Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll. “In the final quarter what we can do when we have a forward platform and get our game going.”

Both head coach Ian McGeechan and captain Paul O’Connell said the late fightback convinced the Lions they could beat the Boks.

“We fluffed five tries, three on the line, we missed kicks at goal and we were killed by the referee in the first half,” said McGeechan, “and we still only lost by five points.

“Of course, we think we can beat the Boks.”

Captain John Smit, who was rushed back on to the field for the final four minutes when it seemed certain that the bedraggled Boks would turn a hefty 19-point lead into an embarrassing defeat, said the Loftus Test would be even more desperate than Saturday’s game.

“They have to win to survive; we have to win to make sure of a series win,” he said.

The two camps have very obvious problems and the captains, Smit and O’Connell, agreed the teams would improve on their shaky, error-ridden first Test performance.

Certainly, the Lions, behind their jittery scrum and vulnerable in the lineout, lacked their usual polish in the first half. Tighthead prop Phil Vickery, tamed by the Beast Mtawarira, is certain to be dropped while their inability to make any impact on the Bok’s rolling maul will be a concern. But their rugby in the final quarter, when they were on the frontfoot, building momentum and taking the ball through the phases, underlined the quality and character of the team.

The Boks, even in victory, have more to concern them. Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn, the controversial selections at flyhalf and fullback, proved a point, underlining their talent, proving their fitness and kicking the goals that mattered.

The problems lie elsewhere with the Springbok defence, once an area of strength, at the very top of the list.

The Lions centres, because of the poor defensive alignment of the Bok backs, found gaps at will in the midfield. And late in the second half, as the Boks tired, the tacklers at no stage cut down the space of the Lions backs who were able to run at flat-footed defenders. Gone was the quick, close, in-your-face marking that has been a feature of the better Bok teams in recent times.

The Boks, desperately short of match time, did seem underdone and rusty. By the final quarter they were all blowing, failing to close down kicks, booting away limited possession and lacking intensity in defence. This persuaded coach Peter de Villiers to change half the team as he went in search of “fresh enthusiasm and speed” and it almost cost the Boks the match.

We did see more urgency and pace, but it all came from the Lions and not the Boks. The replacing of captain Smit, his fellow-prop Mtawarira and Bakkies Botha, removed the spine from the pack while taking off flank Heinrich Brussow, the quickest forward to the breakdown and a strong tackler at a time when the Lions were running the ball, backfired. Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, though he was nursing a sore shoulder, also disappeared and his composure behind the scrum in the final hectic minutes was missed.

The departure of their chief tormentors must have given the Lions a timely lift in those final minutes when they almost completed what would have been a remarkable win.

The lessons were there for both teams with the Lions spending much of the week on their scrummaging while the Boks work on their defence - and what to do if flank Schalk Burger is passed fit to play at Loftus.

Finding a solution to their match fitness problems inside a week might not be easy, but what is certain is that Peter de Villiers will not be as quick to reach for his bench the next time around.

See page 18 for more Bok rugby.

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