Cheslin Kolbe's break set up Lukhanyo Am for a superb try

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“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Few adversaries in sport, let alone rugby union, embody the spirit of that immortal Mike Tyson quote quite as well as the Springboks. Devising strategies to stifle South Africa seems far easier than nullifying their intensity on the pitch.

A crumb of comfort for the British and Irish Lions, following a 17-13 loss on Wednesday evening, is that they have been given a taste of what is required. Jacques Nienaber’s team are sure to improve – they have only had two run-outs since Rugby World Cup 2019 – but Warren Gatland will not be too disheartened.

Picking through a start that appeared to shock his players and scrambled their sense, he will know that the Lions should be steeled for the Test series. This is how South Africa A stunned the tourists.

Breakdown brutality and different types of turnovers

The first two seconds belonged to the Lions, at least. Owen Farrell stabs a flat kick-off in front of Cheslin Kolbe for Louis Rees-Zammit, Chris Harris and Maro Itoje to chase:

That plan pits Itoje, one of the tallest men on the field, against one of the shortest in Kolbe. The former is first to the ball:

From there, though, South Africa recover. Even when Pieter-Steph du Toit spills in a tackle from Ken Owens, Joseph Dweba gathers:

South Africa A 1

Kicking is sure to be a pivotal factor in the next month, and the scrap for these ricochets will be vital. In this instance, it provided the Springboks with a platform to launch a familiar tactic.

With Du Toit on his feet to block Josh Navidi’s charge-down attempt, Faf de Klerk hoists a box-kick. Marco van Staden, an exceptional jackaller, is the chaser to watch:

The Lions had evidently been speaking about the aerial ability of Kolbe before the match. Rees-Zammit, Harris and Conor Murray all run escort lines to obstruct the electric Toulouse wing and shield Liam Williams. 

It works, but also presents Eben Etzebeth with a clear path to the Lions full-back. Note that Van Staden is hanging back. South Africa always organise their kick-chase deliberately:

Etzebeth clatters Williams and Van Staden is able to dart on to the ball and steal possession:

South Africa A 2

In the second minute, we had a glimpse of how South Africa’s backline works in defence. Again, not much seems to have changed since the World Cup.

The back three are essential to the operation, working in an aggressive pendulum whereby the openside wing pushes up hard. Full-back Willie le Roux will follow, with the blindside wing covering him. Note the starting positions of Sbu Nkosi, Le Roux and Kolbe from this Lions lineout:

Bundee Aki’s first-phase run is stopped by Van Staden and then there is the first of many clunky moments for the Lions’ attack. Murray’s pass drifts between three potential first-receivers – Curry (who ducks), Rees-Zammit and Farrell.

Harris mops up but is enveloped and concedes a penalty:

South Africa A 3

Note the division of labour here. Outside centre Lukhanyo Am and Nkosi, who has jammed in, make the tackle that forces Harris inside. 

Damian de Allende is on hand for the jackal opportunity. Le Roux, meanwhile, is all the way up flat. Often, he leads the up-and-in direction of South Africa’s rush from the back:

A minute later, Williams returns a kick and jinks towards the middle of the field where the Lions’ tight-five forwards are waiting:

Jasper Wiese makes a robust tackle, but Franco Mostert is the main man. Kyle Sinckler is hoping to circle around Williams and secure the breakdown…

…but Mostert is having none of that. He smashes into the contact area, with loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff following him. Wiese joins the bulldozing counter-ruck and Joseph Dweba completes the turnover:

South Africa A 4

South Africa do not think to put the ball through the hands. Instead, De Klerk hooks a kick over Anthony Watson for Le Roux to chase:

It dribbles into touch, but the Springboks do not mind that either. They prioritise territory over possession because of how disruptive they can be in defence. As if to underline that, Etzebeth promptly pressurises Itoje into spilling the lineout:

Mostert later snatched a jackal turnover of his own after a Lions driving lineout had collapsed. Malcolm Marx was a breakdown menace from the bench. It only takes a miniscule lapse of concentration for South Africa to pounce, as they demonstrated with their first try.

Pressure shows why the Lions need passers

Nkosi’s try arrived from a Lions free-kick. Curry carries, with Navidi in close support. Again, watch how the Springboks defence is organised.

Wiese, De Allende and Am are braced for impact. In the back-field, Nkosi is arcing around to cover Le Roux in case the full-back has to join Kolbe. De Klerk is another important figure:

The scrum-half speeds around the corner of the next ruck to the guard position. His forwards follow, Mostert meeting Sinckler:

Itoje is the next to carry and, because South Africa have not committed numbers to the ruck, the Lions lock is met by more big men:

At this stage, though, the Lions change direction. Murray finds Farrell and there is an opportunity. With Le Roux closer to the near touchline with Kolbe, a pocket of space has opened up behind Nkosi. Indeed, De Klerk is already tearing towards it:

Farrell’s cross-field chip towards Watson is a decent decision that is not matched by execution. A delay allows Etzebeth to charge him down:

After warm-up matches in which their wings have caused havoc, it was curious to see the Lions keep the ball so tight – especially during a long period of possession inside the opposition 22 before half-time.

South Africa’s desperation in defence was phenomenal, evoking memories of their World Cup final performance. Then again, the Lions could have been more inventive.

Farrell also missed touch from a first-half penalty. In the second half, he struck another cross- kick with South Africa down to 13 men. The opening had been fashioned from Murray’s regathered up-and-under. 

The Lions move the ball towards the far touchline, with Elliot Daly feeding Harris. Pieter-Steph du Toit bolts some 20 metres to make a heavy tackle on Daly. This is important, and surely no accident:

Harris, Taulupe Faletau and Rees-Zammit combine to sweep the Lions into South Africa’s 22, where Le Roux scythes down Curry. Farrell stands deep for the next phase, with Ken Owens and Iain Henderson beyond him in a second wave. 

Am is the widest of South Africa’s defenders, with Watson and Aki out of shot close to the near touchline. Daly is so often Farrell’s second playmaker and an outlet to the wide channels. South Africa may well have planned to target him. In this case, he is still recovering from Du Toit’s tackle:

Daly comes into shot after Farrell has put boot to ball…

…and Am gathers the kick. 

Put bluntly, two late withdrawals from the Lions backline seemed to hinder their chemistry. They looked a team whose backs coach has been in isolation and will need to think about which players can give them width. South Africa were slicker when it mattered.

Clinical, creative counter

South Africa’s second try, scored by Am from Kolbe’s electric break, was spectacular. Typically, though, its origins belonged to humble kick pressure.

We start from a five-man lineout to South Africa:

Quickly, the ball is moved to Morné Steyn, who has De Allende, Van Staden and Wiese around him:

Steyn dinks over the Lions line. Rees-Zammit fields, but it is slightly frantic:

South Africa A 5

Eventually, Murray and Farrell settle things before the former box-kicks. Watson chases…

…so when Le Roux catches under no pressure and returns the kick, the Lions have to adapt their back-field coverage:

Faletau has hung back, but spills:

And another rushed clearance leads to the try. First, watch it through:

Here are a couple of things that encapsulate the craft, industry and intensity of South Africa’s performance. First, look at De Klerk. As Farrell feeds Daly, the Sale Shark puts his head down and scurries towards the near touchline:

Using his acceleration over the ground as well as his height, Du Toit gets into Daly’s eye-line:

Now, turn your attention back to De Klerk as Kolbe gathers. De Klerk points at the Lions’ two-man chase and continues sprinting across the pitch. 

He knows that, if he can get to the touchline and turn to occupy Rees-Zammit on the edge of the Lions line, South Africa will have a two-on-two – and Kolbe will have a one-on-one against Harris:

A reverse angle clearly demonstrates how Harris is isolated, with Kolbe waiting for the one-on-one to materialise before exploding into life with a goose-step:

South Africa A 6

Am also seems to point at Rees-Zammit after Daly’s kick before latching on to the offload to score. As well as De Allende shepherding Farrell away from Nkosi prior to the first try, it is a moment that demonstrates off-the-ball intelligence.

South Africa were in sync and intense. They have slapped down a marker for what should be a fantastic Test series.