The South Africa A game was a massive step up in intensity compared to the Lions' previous warm-ups
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The Lions fell to their first defeat of the 2021 tour with a 17-13 loss to a star-studded South Africa A side in Cape Town on Wednesday. But what did we learn about Warren Gatland’s side during this unofficial fourth Test?
1. A blessing in disguise?
There are two ways of looking at this: either this was Warren Gatland’s worst nightmare come true or the best possible wake-up call. In the opening half, the Lions were bullied by a Springbok ‘A’ side that had spent all of last week locked up in their hotel rooms.
Clearly there was going to be a significant difference in physicality from the previous warm-up games against provincial teams, but this seemed less like a step-up than a trek up Table Mountain. In 2009, Gatland complained that the Lions were not ready for the Springboks’ intensity in the first Test. This time he’s had fair warning. Now he has 10 days to get the Lions up to speed.
2. Springboks don’t change their colours
Rassie Erasmus hinted this week that we would see a more expansive gameplan from the Springboks in this Lions series. If South Africa A received the same memo, it was hidden underneath a familiar blanket of bruising physicality. Frequently it came close to crossing the line.
Eben Etzebeth’s tackle that concussed Liam Williams looked suspiciously high while Faf de Klerk and Marco Van Staden were both sin-binned. There were also some cute blocking lines and late hits. But despite the dancing feet of Cheslin Kolbe, the Springboks are going to deploy the same sledgehammer they used to batter England in the 2019 World Cup final.
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3. Curry fought fire with fire
This was not a night when many Lions elevated their reputations. Wyn Jones scrummaged and carried like an irate ox while his replacement Mako Vunipola did the seemingly impossible job of shackling Kolbe. But head and shoulders above every other player in red was Tom Curry, who took the physical fight to the Springboks.
Every tackle and carry he made shifted the gainline in the Lions’ favour. He was the tourists’ top tackler and won one crucial turnover. Hamish Watson will have a final audition on Saturday against the Stormers, but at the moment Curry is the leading candidate for the Test side.
Tom Curry took the fight to the Springboks
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4. Lions’ attacking decision-making a mess
At one stage, the Lions had more than 70 per cent possession and territory in the second half. Too frequently, they did not know what to do with it. There were two really poor passages of play when South Africa A were down to 13 men. The Lions had been using a pick-and-go on the South Africa tryline for 20-plus phases. Rather than try something new, they kept picking and going and Wyn Jones was pinged for a double movement.
Then after half-time when Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit combined down the right, the Lions could easily have created a mismatch by spreading the play. Instead Owen Farrell kicked straight to Lukhanyo Am who called for the mark.
Lions half-backs Conor Murray and Farrell just could not get a grip on the game. The kicking game especially seemed all at sea. Maybe it is a case of keeping their powder dry for the Tests but the backline play needs some urgent repair work.