The British and Irish Lions have kicked off their tour of South Africa with an underwhelming 37-25 win over the Royal XV at The Bafokeng Sports Palace in Phokeng.
The home side put it up to the tourists for the majority of the game with few of Ian McGeechan’s men in truth doing themselves too many favours in terms of securing a place for the main Tests against South Africa.
First-half tries from Wilhelm Koch and Rayno Barnes had the Royal XV in a great position before Tommy Bowe pulled one back. Bees Roux then added a third for the South Africans against the run of play but star Lion Lee Byrne, replacement Alun-Jones and Ronan O’Gara all scored late touchdowns to sneak a win for the British and Irish contingent.
As they gear up for their three Tests against world champions South Africa, The Lions will not have been encouraged by a shaky start from late call-up Mike Blair. That looked to have been put to bed when an easy penalty from in front of the posts allowed O’Gara to split them, but Naas Olivier quickly made it 3-3 as the home side’s first attack led to The Lions conceding a penalty.
The same player then tried to catch The Lions out with a snap effort at a drop goal, but it dropped short, however he was soon given another opportunity to try and split the posts once more.
That is because Royal XV captain Koch profited from a mistake from Keith Earls, and the failure of Andrew Sheridan to stop him, to just about get over the line despite a horde of Lions pressure. Olivier then kicked the conversion over before adding three further points as more visitor errors allowed him another free penalty.
McGeechan’s men were then stunned by a second Royal XV try when they were raided at the maul, Barnes escaping with the ball and crossing the line unchallenged, though this time Olivier was just off target with his kick for more.
The Lions looked to be offering little for the reminder of the half. Blair did make one fine block but allowed the ball to run out of play, while O’Gara kept aiming for the corners with his penalties, even when the three points were on.
However, they managed to almost half the deficit just before the break through Bowe. The tourists kept an attack going long enough for Blair to sweep the ball to O’Gara and he fed his compatriot Bowe, who ran through and ran over. O’Gara kicked over the extras to leave the Lions 18-10 adrift at the interval.
After the restart, Royal XV wing Egon Seconds collected the ball and had a free run on the line but to The Lions' relief he was adjudged to have collected a forward pass. It got better for the tourists as they won another easy penalty for O’Gara to cut the gap to five.
Olivier then missed a hard kick as the Royal XV begin to lose grip of the encounter, though Sarel Pretorius did save them from the possible concession of another try with a fine tackle on Blair after he was sent on his way by great work from Byrne.
There was further frustration for The Lions minutes later as a long attack ended with Shane Williams escaping dreadful defending and almost going over the line, only for the Welshman to drop the ball.
And Williams’ disappointment continued as he collected the ball to head for the try-line just before the hour mark. The ball travelled from Earls to Williams via Bowe and Byrne, but the earlier Lions try-scorer was called for another forward pass. The failures then continued as, after a brilliant kick forward and collect from Byrne, Martyn Williams lost possession for The Lions and the Royal XV cleared.
And The Lions were punished for all that when the Royal XV caught them with a sucker punch to score their third try. Front rower Roux was the man to notch the score after Davon Raubenheimer put pressure on The Lions backs and allowed the space for Roux to run over untroubled. Riaan Viljoen then made the kick of the day for a magnificent and powerful long-range conversion.
That was disastrous for The Lions, but to be fair their reply was instant. Byrne – by far the best player in red on the day – collected his own high kick to leave the home side in his wake and ran over, allowing O’Gara to convert and get the gap right back to five at 25-20.
Riki Flutey – having just been brought on to become the first ever player to play for and against The Lions – was then just a stray pass short of setting up a third tourists try after good movement and passing from O’Gara. O’Gara did make the gap just two straight after though after the tourists won an easy penalty.
That was scored with just under seven minutes to play, meaning there was still time for The Lions to push for a win and push they did after a needless concession of possession from Bjorn Basson. That led to huge pressure on the line from several Lions players and it was Jones – another replacement – who was the man to ram the ball right down in front of the referee. O’Gara’s conversion from the far right was scrumptious and The Lions had the lead for the first time since 3-0.
Then, after an unstylish showing they did finish the game in style as Martyn Williams held up the ball and ran to make space for O’Gara before feeding the Irishman who ran through to make sure of the win. The Munster man added a further two to finish with a personal tally of 22 following his own good second half.
That made the score a little more respectable, but McGeechan will want much more from what should be a much-changed side when The Lions face The Golden Lions on Wednesday.
Royal XV: R Jeacocks; E Seconds, D van Rensburg, H Coetzee, B Basson; N Olivier, S Pretorius; A Buckle, R Barnes, B Roux , R Mathee, J Lombard, W Koch, D Raubenheimer, J Mokuena.
Replacements: P van der Westhuizen, S Roberts, R Landman, R W Kember, J Coetzee, R Viljoen, J Bowles.
British and Irish Lions: L Byrne; T Bowe, K Earls, J Roberts, S Williams; R O’Gara, M Blair; A Sheridan, M Rees, A Jones; S Shaw, P O’Connell; J Worsley, M Williams, D Wallace.
Replacements: L Mears, P Vickery, A-W Jones, J Heaslip, M Phillips, S Jones, R Flutey.