Lions weather latest storm
Graham Jenkins in Cape Town
June 13, 2009
Winger Tommy Bowe scored one try and made another as the Lions scraped past Western Province in their latest encounter © Getty Images
The Lions had to battle the elements and a determined Western Province side to keep their unbeaten record intact on a difficult day all round at Newlands.
The boot of replacement James Hook saved the Lions' blushes and there was clear relief at the final whistle after another narrow escape following the warning shot fired across their bow by the Cheetahs last Saturday.
This was not the performance that they would have wanted with their first date with the Springboks just one week away. The tourists struggled to find a spark with the cold and wet conditions ensuring a lottery of sorts and as expected the well-drilled hosts provided a real contest.
It was not supposed to be like this. The Lions were hopeful of another strong performance with individual players talking up their own chances of claiming a place in the side to face the Springboks in Durban. But head coach Ian McGeechan may find himself with the kind of selection headache he didn't want. Instead of a flurry of eye-catching individual performances he witnessed a faltering display that arguably offered more questions than answers.
The Lions dominated in the lineout, scrum and breakdown but were guilty at times of trying to play an expansive game when a more conservative approach would have suited the conditions. The visitors' tactical kicking game also fell some way short of Test match standards but again the blustery wind was not their friend.
The best crowd of the tour so far - 33,176 - was swollen by a significant increase in Lions supporters and not even the torrential rain before the game could drown them out. For the first time the familiar chant of, 'Lions, Lions' rang out loud but their flags and banners - one reading 'Umaga can't hurt us here' - failed to inspire great things from the tourists.
The ball spent a disappointing amount of time in the air in the opening period that will have frustrated both McGeechan and those players keen to impress with the ball in hand.
Make no mistake the Lions were here to win and the performance was always going to come second. A loss at this stage of the tour would have robbed them of the priceless momentum their four previous victories have given them and as a result, when points were there to be had they were taken as Test match mentality took hold.
There were few stand-out performances and unfortunately for McGeechan the best came from a player all but assured of his Test place before a ball was kicked - winger Tommy Bowe.
The Irish speedster continues to display the characteristics of a world-class winger and powered to the man of the match honour with another eye-catching display. The Ospreys star is oozing confidence and underlined his growing stature on the international stage by scoring one try and creating two for Ugo Monye.
He showed great strength and pace for his own score - spinning out of one tackle, busting through another double-challenge before wrestling the ball to the ground. His pace was again there to see a few minutes later, cutting through the Western Province line, bouncing off fullback Joe Pietersen before feeding Monye for the score.
Martyn Williams was another to push his claim for the Lions No.7 shirt next weekend. He was a threat in the loose, his usual menacing self at the breakdown and forced his way over for a crucial second half try. His ability to off-load in the tackle is also something to marvel at.
Fly-half Stephen Jones was perhaps the biggest loser in the conditions and may well have handed Ronan O'Gara the chance to play himself into the Lions' No.10 jersey in the last warm-up clash on Tuesday. Fullback Rob Kearney was also a threat and a secure presence in defence but he finds an equally impressive Lee Byrne barring his path to the Test team.
The rush defence that has been so successful for the Lions in recent weeks failed to shackle their opponents but their physical prowess was clearly evident. But it is in attack that the Lions continue to offer exciting potential ahead of the Test series and in Bowe and Monye they have two weapons that could hurt any defence.
The Lions remain some way from the finished article and failed to impose themselves on a side that should not have come as close as they did. But they retained their composure under pressure and secured what is still a valuable victory. They are playing well and their battling qualities once again illustrated that team spirit is good but will that be enough next weekend? I don't think so.
Further improvement is required if they are to account for the Springboks and time is running out for McGeechan and co to get things right.