The British & Irish Lions maintained their 100 percent record in South Africa by eventually breaking down the aggressive resistance of the Southern Kings to triumph 20-8 before a lively crowd at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday afternoon.
Initially rattled by the home side’s brutal approach, The Lions struggled badly during a first half in which they lost Euan Murray and James Hook to injury and Ian McGeechan’s men were fortunate to go in level, at three points apiece, at the break, with Ronan O’Gara having cancelled out an early penalty from Jaco van der Westhuyzen.
However, The Lions made a far more assured start to the second half and O’Gara proved key, landing a second penalty before creating a try for Ugo Monye.
The Lions pack then forced a penalty try, thus rendering Mpho Mbiyozo’s late touchdown nothing more than a consolation try – albeit it a fully deserved one for both the player and his side.
Indeed, it had been said beforehand that the Southern Kings, in their inaugural competitive fixture would be keen to make a big impact. Well, they made several in the opening 20 minutes alone.
They took the lead with less than two minutes on the clock courtesy a confidently-struck penalty from Van der Westhuyzen but that score barely seemed relevant in the context of the game because right from the first whistle the home side had made it clear that their sole focus was on roughing up The Lions every chance they got.
First Gordon D’Arcy was leveled by a massive hit by Frikkie Welsh. Moments later, Joe Worsley was smashed to the floor. Later, Luke Fitzgerald was grounded by a combination of Matthew Turner and De Wet Barry.
Given the physicality of the game it was hardly surprising that The Lions lost two players to injury in the opening half. However, Murray’s withdrawal was down to an ankle injury which probably owed more to the sandy nature of the pitch than the intensity of the Kings’ tackling. Hook, meanwhile, was the recipient of an accidental forearm smash to the head from Wylie Human which left the Welshman wondering what day it was. Despite trying to play on, he was wisely replaced by O'Gara.
Unsurprisingly, the visitors’ 'enthusiastic' approach to the contact area had unsettled The Lions, taken them by surprise.
Indeed, even when Van der Westhuysen was sent to the bin for a reckless challenge on Riki Flutey midway through the first half, the tourists struggled to impose themselves, only managing a penalty from O’Gara whilst the former Springbok out-half was off the pitch.
Again the Lions were struggling badly at the breakdown (the dominant theme of this year’s Tour thus far), with Mbiyozo - who attempted a through-the-legs pass at one point - proving as difficult to contain on the floor as he was in the loose.
The Lions looked toothless in attack, too, with Mike Blair again proving hopelessly out of sync with his backs. Indeed, only the erratic Keith Earls carried any real menace with the ball in hand in the opening 40 minutes. Indeed, the Munster man twice came close to creating tries for Fitzgerald in the first half. In the first instance, he had beaten three men during a scintillating run from inside his own half, while on the second; he had attempted an audacious, over-the-head flicked. Unfortunately, on both occasions, Earls’ attempted killer ball had been forward.
Still, a lead for The Lions would have been undeserved because the Southern Kings had had the better of frantic finale to the half.
Indeed, after former Leicester Tigers lock Marco Wentzel had remarkably gotten on the end of his own chip-and-chase, Human looked certain to score in the right corner. However, even though the abrasive winger had managed to cut inside Ugo Monye, he was halted by a superb challenge from the covering O’Gara.
Even after that rather fortuitous escape, van der Westhuyzen had been presented with the opportunity to edge The Kings in front with a 40-metre penalty attempt in the dying seconds of a bruising opening period, but the fly-half’s kick drifted just to the right of the posts.
As it was, the next score went the way of the tourists, with O’Gara showing Van der Westhuyzen how it’s done by nailing an almost identical shot on goal just five minutes after the restart.
The Lions, feeling ever so slightly more sure of themselves, then took a firm grip on the game with a try from Monye.
O’Gara had been the score’s creator, lofting a measured ball out to the right wing. Turner really should have gathered but he fumbled badly, allowing Monye to pounce.
O’Gara made light of the acute angle to convert and suddenly there were ten points between the sides. The Lions had some breathing space.
Ross Skeate then completely eased the pressure on the tourists by earning himself a yellow card for cynical play in the ruck.
O’Gara saw his resulting penalty come back off the uprights but it mattered not because after the Corkonian had put his side into a hugely advantageous attacking position with a superb kick to the left wing, the pack took over and forced the now seven-man Southern Kings pack into the concession of a penalty try following a succession of collapsed scrums.
However, buoyed on by most vociferous crowd we have seen on Tour to date, the Southern Kings threw everything they had left at The Lions in the closing stages and earned their just desserts when the excellent Mbiyozo forced his way over in the corner with five minutes to go.
The Kings went in search of another score in the dying seconds but The Lions survived, though only just.
Southern Kings: Tiger Mangweni; Wylie Human, Frikkie Welsh, De Wet Barry, Matthew Turner; Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Francois Hougaard; Jaco Engels, Derrick Kuün (capt), Ruan Vermeulen; Ross Skeate, Marco Wentzel; Solly Tyibilika, Mpho Mbiyozo, Darron Nell.
Replacements: Delarey du Preez, Dean Greyling, Lungelo Payi, Dries van Schalkwyk, Josh Fowles, Bevin Fortuin, Mzwandile Stick.
British & Irish Lions: Keith Earls; Ugo Monye, Gordon D’Arcy, Riki Flutey, Luke Fitzgerald; James Hook, Mike Blair; Andrew Sheridan, Ross Ford, Euan Murray; Simon Shaw, Donncha O’Callaghan; Nathan Hines, Joe Worsley, Andy Powell.
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Tom Croft, David Wallace, Harry Ellis, Ronan O'Gara, Shane Williams.