Lions relieved to remain undefeated
June 6, 2009
Stephen Ferris was sin-binned by Wayne Barnes in Bloemfontein © Getty Images
The British and Irish Lions flew to Durban tonight - relieved their 100% South Africa tour record remains intact.
The Cheetahs pushed the tourists all the way before falling to a narrow 26-24 defeat at Vodacom Park. First-half tries by Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls helped establish a 20-0 lead, yet the Cheetahs hit back with touchdowns from Danwel Demas, Wian du Preez and Corne Uys.
Substitute Louis Strydom sent a late drop-goal attempt agonisingly wide before the Lions could celebrate their escape. They now tackle the Sharks in Durban on Wednesday night.
"We got ourselves into a good position and didn't develop it as we could have done," admitted Lions head coach Ian McGeechan. "The breakdowns became a bit of a lottery and took a lot of momentum out of the game.
"We knew the games were going to get increasingly tougher, and I think it was a good challenge. You can never under-estimate how important a win is to the squad.
"The start was very good, but it became stop-start after that, which disappointed us. I don't think the ball in play time was very high."
McGeechan praised the contribution of Wales fly-half James Hook, whose 16 points ultimately made the difference between victory and defeat. He added: "In all three games our goalkickers have been significant. I thought the half-backs played well and gave us a chance to play in the right areas."
Lions skipper Paul O'Connell was disappointed after his team took their collective foot off the pedal - with the breakdown again a problem area for the tourists.
"Maybe we stopped putting as many numbers at the breakdown - you need numbers there, to be low and aggressive, and we didn't do that," he said. "Turning the ball over killed us. They can take momentum out of your team and give the other team belief.
"We started off very well. After Wednesday's game (when the Lions beat the Golden Lions 74-10, people perhaps thought it was going to be more of the same, but the Cheetahs went up a gear. I am disappointed for the guys. We've had a great buzz, and the guys were very enthusiastic, but for nine of the guys it was their first game in a while, so to get away with the win was important.
"Decisions will go against you in a rugby game. We needed to be a bit more clever than we were when Stephen was in the bin."
Cheetahs coach, the former London Irish hooker Naka Drotske, was proud of his team's display.
"The games in the Super 14 we did well in this season were the games when we were in the opposition's faces, like against the Sharks and Crusaders," he said. "The way to play against the Lions is to be in their faces and not to allow them momentum. The guys were really up for it.
"Being down 20-0 I didn't think we could come back, to be honest. We gave away two soft tries, especially the first one, but we missed three or four penalties as well. That was our problem in the Super 14. At crucial times, we gave away soft tries.
"I thought our three loose forwards were superb. We had a mindset of attacking the Lions at the breakdown, and I thought it went well today. The last few minutes was about playing through the phases. It's difficult to comment on the late penalty that went against us - we just couldn't get momentum to move a bit closer."
And Cheetahs skipper Hendro Scholtz added, "We wanted to target the breakdown, and not allow them much front-foot ball."