Lions escape in the battle of Bloem
Graham Jenkins in Bloemfontein
June 6, 2009
Lions skipper Paul O'Connell fronts up to the Cheetahs' Wian du Preez at Vodacome Park © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions were promised a game by the Cheetahs and the hosts duly obliged with a battling display at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein.
Ian McGeechan's was pushed all the way by a Cheetahs side determined to make an impression where their Super 14 rivals the Golden Lions had failed so miserably in mid-week. The Lions failed to find the polished performance that they managed in Johannesburg but to be fair they were not afforded the same kind of luxuries in terms of time and space that they were handed on a platter by the Golden Lions.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Cheetahs' lock Nico Breedt, prop Wian du Preez and winger JW Jonker earlier this week and I asked them if they fancied their chances against the elite tourists. Their reply? 'Do you fancy your chances?'
At the time I laughed off the suggestion that the Super 14's basement side, with just two victories this year and without their talisman Juan Smith, could turnover the northern hemisphere's finest but I will not make that mistake again. Those two victories came against the giants that are the Sharks and the Crusaders and they came close to adding another big scalp to that list. The Cheetahs could and perhaps should have claimed an historic scalp here - a soft early try, some poor place kicking and a near-miss drop goal cost them that place in the record books.
The temperature dropped around the stadium before kick off but there was no danger of that happening on the pitch. Tempers flared at the second scrum with the game descending into a brawl - flanker Stephen Ferris and Breedt wrestled each other to the ground while referee Wayne Barnes issued a warning to Lions prop Euan Murray and Du Preez.
It had taken just two minutes for this game to deliver evidence of a real contest, and a bruising one at that, something that Wednesday's one-sided clash failed to provide in the best part of 80 minutes.
Ferris underlined his Test credentials with another powerful display and claimed the man of the match honour despite becoming the first Lions player to be sin-binned on this tour. His indiscretion led to the Lions losing their grip on the game and could just have easily been the villain.
As if engaged by the intensity of the early exchanges, the growing number of Lions supporters who are joining the tour by the day found their voice as first Ferris and then Earls crossed for tries. The Lions were totally in control at 20-0, but any thoughts of another points-blitz were wide of the mark.
When Ferris saw yellow for blatantly killing the ball midway through the half the Cheetahs launched an impressive comeback. The pacey Danwel Demas crossed to offer the home fans hope and he could have had a second soon after but instead provided the game's comedic moment. With a the defence wide open he opted to chip ahead when perhaps he should have backed his pace - he just failed to reach the ball in time and instead went head first into the in-goal mud.
But the Cheetahs were on a roll and the impressive Du Preez forced his way over to hammer home the message to the Lions - indiscipline will cost you.
A 23-14 lead at the break was perhaps a little flattering for the Lions and a significant improvement in the second half would be needed to break the Cheetahs' resolve. That never happened.
Heinrich Brussow produced an eye-catching display, to remind the Springboks selectors what they are missing, and he was at the heart of the battle at the breakdown that saw the Cheetahs claim more than their fair share of success.
The Lions appeared frustrated at times with English referee Wayne Barnes as they came off second best at the breakdown time and time again and there will likely be fallout from that in the coming days if not hours. They controlled the scrum but turnovers will always prove costly and the Lions were guilty of losing the ball too many times.
Neither side were willing to give ground but there was more trouble for the Lions when wing Shane Williams looked to force a pass to James Hook as the visitors closed in on the try line. The ball was intercepted with Corne Uys racing away to bring the Cheetahs to within a score with only a few minutes left.
The crowd, a disappointing 23,710, did their best to lift their side one last time but in the end it was not to be. A drop goal attempt from Louis Strydon dropped agonisingly wide of the mark. Relief all round for the Lions.
We always knew goal-kicking would be an important element to the Lions' tour hopes and James Hook underlined the tourists' strength in that area. In the end it was the difference between the two sides.
We must also remember this Lions side featured untried combinations and players short of game time - they are learning as they go. The Springboks will have taken notice of the way the Cheetahs denied the Lions any significant momentum on the field but never underestimate the significance of a victory off the field.
The Lions now have three wins from three although today's performance feels like a step back, such are the standards these players have set for themselves. Their unbeaten record remains intact and they will be grateful for what was a really tough test and equally thankful that they avoided the demoralising defeat that at one point looked on the cards.