Dominant Lions still have work to do
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 10, 2009
Fullback Lee Byrne was on the scoresheet for the Lions in Durban © Getty Images
Four games and four wins. The Lions' build-up to the eagerly-awaited Test series with the Springboks remains on track.
Another assured display produced five tries and a comfortable victory against a limited Sharks side that, as we thought, lacked any real cutting edge and what attacking endeavour they showed was snuffed out by an excellent defensive display from the Lions.
Let's start with the positives. Amongst the highlights was the performance of scrum-half Mike Phillips who has surely made the Test No.9 jersey his own. A superb all-round display saw him claim the man of the match honour but he will no doubt thank his pack who bossed their opponents from the opening whistle.
Phillips saw off the challenge of the prickly Sharks No.9 Rory Kockott to underline his credentials and notched a superb try to boot. In a move reminiscent of Matt Dawson's nonchalant score against the Springboks in the first Test in 1997, the Ospreys scrum-half took on the Sharks defence and dummied and stepped his way over the line.
Equally impressive was fullback Lee Byrne. His eye-catching display included a try and greater reward surely awaits with a starting place against the Springboks. His incisive running offers a huge threat and his boot is something else - one particular 70m touch finder left those around me gasping.
Another who is set to taste action here again in a little over a week's time is Jamie Heaslip. The No.8 is growing in confidence by the day and with each game he is impressing more and more. He grabbed the last try in a perfect example of what a bullish player he has become on this tour. The Lions were going in for the kill and with yet another penalty going their way the Leinster man stepped up, took the quick tap and powered his way over the line.
The performance of this trio slightly over-shadowed the rest of the team where there were other notable displays. Jamie Roberts once again gobbled up ground over the gain line but will have sent shock waves through the Lions camp when he went down with a shoulder injury. He recovered but needed to be strapped up when he finally made way in the second half. All Lions supporters will hope that it was just a precautionary measure but why did they strap him up on the sideline in front of the on-looking Springboks?
Brian O'Driscoll was again lively and failed narrowly to claim a try. Perhaps the O'Driscoll from the 2001 Lions tour would have had the pace and stamina to reach line but instead the talismanic centre was snared just a metre short having intercepted the try on his own 22. But to be fair to O'Driscoll his decision to look around for support and not his advancing years cost him the try. His quick feet and ability to off-load in the tackle are priceless aspects of the Lions' armoury.
Ronan O'Gara's display is also worthy of note. Good to his word he showed he is more than just a good kicking fly-half with a pleasing eagerness to take the game to the Sharks. His varied approach included perhaps too many cross-kicks and chip-throughs but they served their purpose in constantly turning the Sharks' defence and did not allow them to settle.
Lee Mears was another to boost his Test chances with an exceptional work rate while Paul O'Connell and Gethin Jenkins were dependable in the tight and the loose.
Although the tourists ran away with this in the end, the failure to capitalise on their first half dominance will be a concern. A 7-3 lead at the break did not do them justice but the Lions only had themselves to blame for a failure to put away their chances.
They dominated the game in terms of territory and possession but time and time again they failed to unlock the Sharks and should at least have had three tries to their name at the break. In a tighter game they will no doubt make each trip to their opponents' 22 count on the scoreboard.
The Springboks will not as generous with time, space or opportunities and the Lions need to discover their ruthless and clinical streak sooner rather than later.
But credit to the Lions - they did not panic and stuck to the game plan and their dominance in every aspect was soon evident where it matters most.
And the Lions also showed they had learnt their lessons from the narrow victory over the Cheetahs with a much-improved display at the breakdown. However, referee interpretation threatened to be their undoing again. In Bloemfontein it was Wayne Barnes' view of the breakdown that caused concern while on this occasion it was Jonathan Kaplan's take on the Lions' scrummaging.
Jenkins was singled out and penalised several times during the game and McGeechan and co will be desperate to ensure there are no further costly mis-communications when it comes to the technical aspects of the game.
Another step in the right direction but there is still plenty to work on before the Lions return to this same ground for the first Test on June 20.
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