Below-par Lions scrape past Kings
June 16, 2009
Ronan O'Gara played an important role in Port Elizabeth
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The British & Irish Lions scrapped to a 20-8 victory over the Southern Kings at the newly-opened Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, although coach Ian McGeechan would have seen little to affect his plans as he prepares a side to face South Africa in the first Test in Durban on Saturday.
The Lions, skippered by Donncha O'Callaghan, secured victory thanks to a try from late replacement Ugo Monye, in as cover for the ill Shane Williams, and a penalty try, but their breakdown woes were exposed again against a scratch side that had only been together for just over a week. Shorn of the prowess of either David Wallace or Martyn Williams at openside and short of the explosive work of Gethin Jenkins and Phil Vickery the Lions struggled to make any impact and were frequently penalised at rucks.
Lock Simon Shaw, No.8 Andy Powell and prop Adam Jones were all tireless in defence and produced much of the Lions' good work - their efforts perhaps enough to influence the bench on Saturday - while Ronan O'Gara's boot was accurate and reassuring.
The Southern Kings fielded several players with experience in Europe, including locks Marco Wentzel, formerly of Leicester, and Toulon's Ross Skeate. Former Harlequins centre De Wet Barry also started for the home side, with his fellow Springboks Solly Tyibilika, fly-half Jaco van der Westhuysen and fullback Bevin Fortuin all joining him.
The Kings were cheered on to the field by the biggest crowd seen thus far on this tour, and had the hopes of the Eastern Province union on their shoulders as their bid for inclusion in the Super Rugby structure continued.
The invitational side were ahead early thanks to a penalty from van der Westhuysen and Frikkie Welsh threw himself in to tackles and rucks with no apparent concern for his own health. James Hook felt the force of an early hammering after a scything break through the defence while Scottish prop Euan Murray was forced off with a sprained ankle after only seven minutes. Hook hobbled off the field shortly afterwards, the Lions management facing a nightmare injury list ahead of the Test match on Saturday.
Van der Westhuyzen continued to trouble the Lions, sniping through a half gap as the tourists looked rattled by the physicality of their opponents. The fly-half let his enthusiasm get the better of him eventually however, seeing yellow for a late and high hit on Flutey.
Keith Earls showed flashes of his brilliant running game, one particular burst around two defenders providing a rare moment of relief for the Lions as they continued to be battered by the fired-up Kings, but a forward pass ruined their most promising attack.
The home side refused to let their momentum drop as the half wore on, with a frantic period of play nearly leading to a try for Wylie Human only for the Lions to scrag him at the final moment. The tourists showed their lack of composure again following the latest Kings surge, their accuracy letting them down as they looked to break away through Monye and Fitzgerald.
Van der Westhuysen spurned another chance at goal before the half-time whistle to leave the scores level going in to the break, and despite whatever words came from McGeechan in the changing room the Lions were turned over almost immediately after the resumption before tempers spilled over into a couple of confrontations among the forwards.
After calming down the protagonists referee Owens signalled a penalty for the Lions, which O'Gara converted to send his side in front for the first time. Following another big, yet fair, tackle on Blair the Lions were handed a penalty at the breakdown, O'Gara sending them in to Kings' territory. Shaw got himself isolated from the rest of his pack however, and two Kings players gave the tourists a lesson in aggressive play at the breakdown - securing the ball and the penalty against more ineffective clearing out.
The Lions finally had their breakthrough after another penalty against the Kings for offside, O'Gara pinning the home side in to the corner. From the lineout the Lions worked several effective phases with their forwards before the Munster fly-half sent an arching cross-field kick towards Monye. The wing was beaten to the ball by Bristol's Mathew Turner but the Kings man couldn't control the ball allowing Monye to snaffle it and score. O'Gara was on target with the conversion but the Lions failed to capitalise on their score.
Shaw's workrate around the field continued to power their forward effort but their commitment was not matched by accuracy. Owens' whistle provided a constant backdrop to the Lions' efforts, their work on the floor consistently straying in to negative territory and allowing little room for manoeuvre for the official.
Owens lost patience next with Skeate, sending the lock for ten minutes on the bench as O'Gara missed the shot at goal. The fly-half atoned for his miss by sending a kick into huge amounts of space, producing a lineout after replacement Mzwandile Stick hurled the ball against his own man.
Their drive produced another penalty and subsequently a scrum against the seven men of the Kings, who hit the deck twice before Owens set off for the posts and signalled a penalty try. O'Gara converted but plaudits were deserved by Jones - who did a superb job in crushing Jaco Engels.
The Lions could only celebrate for a moment, as after a horrible shanked clearance by Fitzgerald the Kings piled pressure on to the tourists. After Engels had been stopped inches short Owens signalled a scrum, from which the excellent Mpo Mbiyoso broke clear and crashed over in the corner for a deserved try.
Both sides wrestled for possession in the closing stages but fittingly it was the home side who finished the game on top, although their late surges for the Lions' line could not produce another consolation score in front of their appreciative home crowd.
Southern Kings: Tiger Mangweni, Wylie Human, Frikkie Welsh, De Wet Barry, Mat Turner, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Francois Hougaard, Darron Nel Solly Tyibilika, Mpo Mbiyoso, Ross Skeate, Marco Wentzel, Ruan Vermeulen, Derick Küun, Jaco Engels
Replacements: Delarey du Preez, Dean Greyling, Lungelo Payi, Dries van Schalkwyk, Josh Fowles, Bevin Fortuin, Mzwandile Stick.
British & Irish Lions: Keith Earls (Munster & Ireland); Ugo Monye (Harlequins & England), Riki Flutey (Wasps & England), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster & Ireland), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster & Ireland), James Hook (Ospreys & Wales), Mike Blair (Edinburgh & Scotland); Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks & England), Ross Ford (Edinburgh & Scotland), Euan Murray (Northampton & Scotland), Simon Shaw (Wasps & England), Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster & Ireland) (captain), Nathan Hines (Perpignan & Scotland), Joe Worsley (Wasps & England), Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues & Wales).
Replacements: Matthew Rees (Scarlets & Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers & England), David Wallace (Munster & Ireland), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers & England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster & Ireland), Shane Williams (Ospreys & Wales).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Cobus Wessels (South Africa) Television Match Official: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.