James Hook’s soaring penalty goal four minutes from the end saved the Lions in Cape Town. But has even that superb kick saved the Lions tour?
From the comparative comfort of an 18-9 lead, these Lions again stuttered and stumbled in a thoroughly unconvincing way. True, the Lions outscored Province by three tries to one. But their continuing tendency to give away constant penalties puts a serious question mark against their ability to live with the Springboks.
With time running out and the 1st Test just a week away, you’d have thought Ian McGeechan’s men would have found another gear at Newlands, moving smoothly onto a level of performance which would have crushed a weakened Western Province challenge.
But these Lions continue to look at best modest, at worst pretty ordinary. They never learn at the breakdown, being penalised time and again by Mark Lawrence for elementary offences like handling in the ruck, diving off their feet at the breakdown and going in at the side. How international players can continue committing such absurd, amateurish errors is beyond me.
Again, the Lions dominated possession, winning more than 70% for long periods of the game. Yet again all that came to nothing because the Lions badly lacked composure, accuracy and precision in their play.
We are surely faced with the stark truth. There may, just, be 15 quality players in this Lions squad and when they are in the same team, the Lions might have a hope in the Test series. But without key performers like Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne, Phil Vickery, Tom Croft and Paul O’Connell, this Lions squad looks desperately thin on real quality.
The one player who stood out yesterday was Irish wing Tommy Bowe, who has surely nailed down the Test No. 14 jersey. The Ulsterman scored a superb try, finishing off the Lions best move of the match, and he then made a second try for fellow wing Ugo Monye, with a clever step, punishing run to break the defensive line and a gorgeously soft, well-timed off-load to send Monye clear.
That sort of class was notoriously absent from the Lions play for most of the remainder of the game. They were guilty of turning over possession, losing control of the ball and lacking the type of dynamism to be expected of Lions teams. Far, far too often, the lack of pinpoint accuracy in passing meant that players coming onto the ball had to check to take it.
This is elementary stuff, the basics that you teach kids. There were some players, lock Nathan Hines and fly half Stephen Jones among them, who understood the need to offload in the tackle to maintain continuity. But too many players continued to go to ground, and with their breakdown work again largely unimpressive despite the efforts of Martyn Williams, the Lions suffered as a consequence.
Teams hoping to beat the world champions in seven days time surely ought to be able to swat aside with arrogance and complete conviction the challenge of a provincial side missing a host of top players. It has to be a cause for huge concern that these Lions just couldn’t do that.
Province fly half William de Waal punished the tourists for their frequent errors by kicking four penalty goals and a drop. He was short with a late drop goal which would almost certainly have snatched a draw.
Western Province should be proud of themselves for a hugely creditable effort. But the fact that they kept in touch on the scoreboard chiefly through the Lions technical mistakes ought to alarm the Lions management.
The tour moves on, to Port Elizabeth and then Durban for Saturday’s 1st Test. Frankly, at this stage, the Lions don’t look anywhere near ready for that challenge and nowhere near good enough. But perhaps they can pull a rabbit from the hat this week to turnaround this tour. They certainly need something dramatic.