Unconvincing Lions snatch victory
May 30, 2009
Lions fly-half Ronan O'Gara put a sheen on the scoreline for the tourists
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The British & Irish Lions scrapped to an opening 37-25 victory over a plucky Royal XV at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg, but there were more questions than answers for Ian McGeechan's fledgling tourists.
The Lions had looked down-and-out after tries from Royal XV skipper Wilhelm Koch, hooker Ryno Barnes and prop Bees Roux had opened up a 12 point lead but a superb try-scoring performance from Welsh fullback Lee Byrne and further efforts from Tommy Bowe, Alun-Wyn Jones and 22 points, including the final try, from fly-half Ronan O'Gara saw McGeechan's men crawl over the finish line.
The Lions struggled to assert any dominance at the breakdown and were frequently outfought, while the precision in the backs was not there after their early training sessions.
The Lions' injury curse struck again in the hours before kick-off, with Wales No.8 Andy Powell and Irish flanker Stephen Ferris both forced to withdraw after being selected to make their debuts. Powell, ruled out by a hand injury, saw his place at No.8 taken by David Wallace while Ferris' spot on the bench was taken by his fellow Irishman Jamie Heaslip.
Scrum-half Mike Blair made a shaky start and saw his first clearance charged down. After his pack has splintered the Royal XV scrum on their own feed Irish fly-half O'Gara landed the first points of the 2009 tour however.
The Royal XV drew level with their first attack, Cheetahs fly-half Naas Olivier slotting a penalty after Blair had been levelled by No.8 Jonathan Makoena.
Young centre Keith Earls endured a nightmare start to his Lions career, and from his third knock on in the early stages the Royal XV stormed in to the lead. First Olivier and then the impressive Devon Raubenheimer surged forward before some strong decoy running outfoxed Andrew Sheridan and opened the door to skipper Wilhelm Koch to score.
Olivier scored his second penalty for his side to move further ahead before hooker Matthew Rees became the next Lion to come under scrutiny, his throwing was poor and he put his side under pressure after he overthrew an attacking lineout. Following an excellent chase from the home side the Lions were forced back in to their own territory and from the lineout the Royal XV scored their second try. Rolling a maul towards the Lions' line, hooker Ryno Barnes saw all the space he could desire open up and he breezed in to score.
A penalty presented the Lions with a final roll of the dice before the cacophonous half-time siren, their maul setting up position before Irish wing Tommy Bowe gave the tourists a much-needed shot in the arm. O'Gara found some space and Bowe off his wing, the Osprey scything through the Royal XV defence for their first try on tour.
The Lions could have been 15 points behind within moments of the restart after winger Egon Seconds intercepted a sluggish pass from O'Gara, only for play to be called back as Royal XV prop Roux loitered offside. O'Gara slotted the penalty to keep the Lions in contention.
Olivier missed with his next attempt at goal while the Lions' precision continued to desert them. Some flashes of brilliance from Byrne under pressure clashed with more wastefulness with the Royal XV try-line in sight - Williams and Bowe conspiring to fire the ball in to touch when searching for an overlap. Williams also missed another chance with the line at his mercy when he pirouetted out of a tackle but lost the ball forward.
The Lions' profligacy was punished to the full by Roux - who barrelled over to score what looked to be the winning try after Robenheimer had stretched the tourists' defence to breaking point. Byrne had other ideas, striking back to for the Lions seconds after the restart. Enhancing his Test claim with almost every move, Byrne chipped in to space before volleying the ball clear of the defence and gathering to score.
Riki Flutey, making history as the first man to play for and against the Lions, then broke clear after Bowe had collected a well-weighted chip from O'Gara but he failed to find one of his support runners. O'Gara landed a penalty to bring the Lions to within two before a stroke of luck handed them a lifeline. After a huge clearance from Byrne, which was heading out on the full, Royal XV wing Bjorn Basson fumbled the ball in to touch. From the lineout the Lions again turned to the maul and after period of sustained pressure it was Welsh replacement lock Alun-Wyn Jones who was forced over the line.
O'Gara added a fourth try after a sweeping move sparked by a interception from Jamie Roberts, putting a sheen on the scoreline and restoring a small amount of pride to the Lions.
Royal XV: R Jeacocks; E Seconds, D van Rensburg, H Coetzee, B Basson; N Olivier, S Pretorius; A Buckle, R Barnes, B Roux; R Mathee J Lombard; W Koch (capt), D Raubenheimer, J Mokuena.
Replacements : S Roberts for Buckle 54 mins; R Landman for Lombard 55 mins; R Viljoen for Olivier 55 mins; P van der Westhuizen for Barnes 68 mins; J Coetzee for Pretorius 68 mins.
British & Irish Lions: L Byrne (Wales); T Bowe (Ireland), K Earls (Ireland), J Roberts (Wales), S Williams (Wales); R O'Gara (Ireland), M Blair (Scotland); A Sheridan (England), M Rees (Wales), A Jones (Wales); P O'Connell (Ireland, capt), S Shaw (England); J Worsley (England), M Williams (Wales), D Wallace (Ireland).
Replacements : P Vickery (England) for Jones 66 mins; A Wyn-Jones (Wales) for Shaw 66 mins; J Heaslip (Ireland) for Wallace 66 mins; M Phillips (Wales) for Blair 66 mins; R Flutey (England) for Earls 66 mins; L Mears (England) for Rees 68 mins.
Referee: Marius Jonker (SA)
Assistant referees: J Peyper, R Rossouw