Tourists missing fire and malice as they get scrappy win in opener.
Craig Ray writes for the Sunday Times that the British & Irish Lions skipper Paul O’Connell looked slightly bemused when he was presented with a trophy after his side’s victory over the Royal XV in their tour opener yesterday.
The Irishman knew the performance wasn’t worthy of any silverware and the best that the Lions could take from the encounter was that they won thanks to a second-half score that read 27-7 in their favour.
Irish flyhalf Ronan O’Gara scored 22 points from a try, four conversions and three penalties and was one of a few players to have made a positive impression on coach Ian McGeechan.
Fullback Lee Byrne was another, while young Irish centre Keith Earls endured a torrid opening half, knocking on four times. But his personal mistakes only served to highlight the team’s problems.
Besides a scrum that dominated, their game was off colour and they deservedly went into the break eight points down. They lost No8 Andy Powell to a hand injury yesterday, which must have disrupted them slightly, but that was not an excuse for their timid first-half display.
The Lions showed understandable lack of cohesion, but there was also an absence of fire and a missing tinge of malice. They were too nice. It was almost as if the game needed a punch-up to rekindle the spirit of Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson.
Perhaps the nearly empty Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace robbed the match of the atmosphere the Lions, especially the new caps, might have expected from such an occasion.
But with the Bulls in action in the Super 14 final 120km up the road, rugby fans who weren’t at Loftus were probably at home in front of their television sets. At times it looked as if the Lions would rather have been doing the same.
The last time the Lions lost their opening match on tour was against Queensland on the 1971 tour to Australia and New Zealand. The last time they lost first up in South Africa was against Western Transvaal in 1955.
For 75 minutes it looked as if that dubious record was going to be equalled. Perhaps losing the opening match isn’t such a bad omen for the Lions, as in ’55 they drew the series 2-2 and in ’71 they beat the All Blacks 2-1.
But O’Connell’s men were not interested in omens and repeating history and they sent a message to the Boks that — if nothing else — they are scrappers and will only improve.
The Royal XV deserve some credit, too, because they came to play rugby and didn’t try to rough the Lions up. They kept it simple through good defence, a strong lineout, hard running and quality counter-rucking.
After O’Gara and Royals flyhalf Naas Olivier swapped penalties the Royals went into the lead through a try for flank and skipper Wilhelm Koch, courtesy of a lovely flip pass from centre Hanno Coetzee.
The Lions’ problems worsened when Royals hooker Rayno Barnes smashed his way over in the 27th minute. Suddenly, the Lions needed to score next to keep themselves in the match.
It probably wasn’t the scenario they envisaged when they looked at the fixture list, but at least McGeechan would be able to judge his squad’s character.
They responded well to the challenge, scoring a try just before the break through Tommy Bowe. That shifted the momentum the Lions way and in the second half there was only one side in it, yet it took until the 76th minute for the Lions to finally get ahead.
Their composure was key and despite slipping 12 points behind with less than 15 minutes to play after Royals prop Bees Roux scored against the run of play, the Lions remained focused.
They responded from the kick-off with Byrne scoring a wonderful solo effort and put the game away with further tries from replacement lock Alun-Wyn Jones and O’Gara.
Royal XV —
Tries: Wilhelm Koch, Rayno Barnes, Bees Roux.
Conversions: Naas Olivier, Riaan Viljoen.
Penalties: Olivier (2).
Tries: Tommy Bowe, Lee Byrne, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ronan O’Gara.
Conversions: Ronan O’Gara (4).
Penalties: O’Gara (3).