Defiant Lions survive brutal onslaught
Graham Jenkins in Port Elizabeth
June 16, 2009
Joe Worsley feels the force of Jaco van der Westhuyzen in Port Elizabeth © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions will embark on the Test series with an unbeaten record after weathering a brutal onslaught from the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
Today was Youth Day here in South Africa - a national holiday to celebrate the young - but there was nothing child-friendly about this war and much of it should have carried an X-rating.
It was not quite a sequel to the so-called 'Battle of Boet Erasmus' that took place on the famous Lions tour of 1974 but this had the air of an old-fashioned set-to and there was no doubt that the hosts were here to make an impression - quite literally. But there was no '99' call or all-out retaliation from the Lions - not even a hint of it, such is the impressive ice-cool composure of this latest pride of Lions. They would not be rattled.
However the Lions, with over a month of intense training behind them, failed to put away a side that has been together for a little over a week. At this stage of the tour that just isn't good enough and will be cause for concern for head coach Ian McGeechan and his management team. Battle hardened they may be, but for too long they looked short of answers to the Kings' tactics.
The Southern Kings promised a performance full of attitude and that is exactly what they threw at the Lions from the opening whistle - a full-on physical assault peppered with cheap shots, late tackles and aggressive rucking that clearly unsettled the tourists in what was a fragmented game from start to finish.
The Lions were bullied throughout the opening period and it came at a cost with first Euan Murray limping off before James Hook was withdrawn as a precautionary measure throwing both players' Test hopes into disarray.
Frikkie Welsh, Mpho Mbiyozo, De Wet Barry, Wylie Human and Jaco van der Westhuysen were among those flying into the Lions in an apparent attempt to test the tourists' resolve. They walked a fine line with no apparent warning issued by referee Nigel Owens, although fly-half Van der Westhuysen at least saw yellow for one of his more blatant challenges.
But it was not all crash, bang wallop from the Kings who showed the flashes of flair you would expect from an invitational side. A superb chip and chase from Leicester lock Marco Wentzel was the highlight, and his equally impressive offload to Human looked to have given them a try but for a last-ditch tackle by Ronan O'Gara who was forced to step into the fray as a replacement for Hook.
You would have thought it was the Kings playing for a Test jersey such was their ferocity in the opening period and it was pleasing to see a side determined to make the most of their 'once in a lifetime' opportunity.
The Lions would not be drawn into a brawl when perhaps a case of meeting fire with fire would have doused the Kings' desire sooner than they did and maybe the result would have come at less of a cost. Only centre Gordon D'Arcy looked ready to take the fight to the Kings as the Lions were forced into a rearguard action for most of the game.
The visitors stuck rigidly to their usual game plan of running good ball with Keith Earls, try scorer Ugo Monye and Luke Fitzgerald catching the eye - but question marks remain. The tactical kicking game was again disappointing, and while they dominated in the scrum they were also victims of some aggressive and productive work by the Kings at the breakdown.
But again they showed great self-control to overcome their latest test and most importantly notch their sixth win in a row. The Lions kept their heads in the heat of an intense battle and deserved the win here and this lesson will serve the squad well.
They now move on to the first Test against South Africa on Saturday where they will find an even bigger physical challenge awaiting them.