The SRB’s match preview picked out the kicking battle to be a crucial element of the First Test between South Africa and the Lions – and so it came to pass with both sides using contestable kicks to try and gain ground in a brutally physical encounter where even getting across the gainline was a massive challenge.
Here are five takeaways from the aerial conflict in the opening game of the series:
1. In or out
There was one very clear distinction between the two sides’ approach – the Lions were not interested in kicking to touch. While South Africa kicked the ball out of play 9 times (plus one unintentionally put straight out) until the 80th minute when Stuart Hogg blootered the ball into the stands, every one of the Lions’ previous 26 kicks were meant to stay in field.
It’s clear there is a feeling in the B&I camp that they have an advantage in fitness and mobility. The nature of South Africa’s game plan contributes to the latter. The former is partly down to the greater frequency of Test rugby played by the Lions’ squad over the last two years but the greater disruption suffered due to Covid by the Springboks (actual illness and isolations) must also have an impact. Keeping the ball alive is just the Lions’ coaches twisting the knife – they will extract any competitive advantage they can find to win this series.
2. The lost balls
One area Warren Gatland and co. might not have been too impressed with was the Lions’ work under the high ball where the error count was a little worse than might have been hoped. Five different players lost possession under contestable kicks put up by the home side.
- Dan Biggar lost one to Cheslin Kolbe and knocked another on.
- Stuart Hogg dropped one (awarded as a knock on but it actually went backwards from the Lions’ player).
- Elliot Daly slapped the ball back to no-one, which lead to the chalked off Willie le Roux try.
- Anthony Watson missed one which was taken by Makazole Mapimpi.
- Liam Williams couldn’t defuse a Faf de Klerk bomb, dropping the ball which started the chaos that lead to the chalked off Damian de Allende try.
The net return for the Lions was just 4 out of 10 recovered from contested kicks put up by South Africa (clean catches for Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe, a spectacular juggling effort from Watson and a tap back to a teammate from van der Merwe).
If there is a reaction from the Springboks it is likely to be doubling down on plan A and just doing it better rather than ripping up their normal approach. That likely means more kicks and more intensity on the chase. The Lions’ backline will need to solidify things under the high ball if they don’t want to allow South Africa to build momentum and create the sort of errors they love to profit off.
3. Duhan and Tom are going to get you
The Lions’ two youngest players – Duhan van der Merwe (26.2) and Tom Curry (23.1) formed a very effective kick chase duo (Tuhan?). Kwagga Smith in particular will have nightmares about hearing red jerseyed players thundering towards him – although van der Merwe and Curry were happy to thump anyone they could get their hands on!
Between them they recovered possession five times from contestable or man and ball kicks by the Lions (one tackled into touch, one penalty won, two knock-ons forced, one ball tapped down to a teammate). The Scotland wing was close to winning another three and there was a further occasion when Curry should have had a penalty for Smith holding on after he was levelled by van der Merwe.
Liam Williams and Anthony Watson both contributed to knock-ons by their opposite man as the Lions got the ball back on two further occasions late on after the departures of van der Merwe and Curry.
4. Hogg goes boom
In the midst of all the measured kicking there was one man who was able to resort to the good old-fashioned punt down the park. Stuart Hogg was responsible for all 4 of the longest kicks in the match, pushing South Africa right back on or into their 22.
In a game that often resembled a chess match (with overgrown pieces that like to batter each other) territorial dominance was a huge factor. Hogg’s boot and his ability to put the Springboks into areas they simply do not want to play from is only likely to become more essential as the series progresses.
5. The Price is right
The received wisdom was that Ali Price had been selected to start ahead of Conor Murray to bring pace and tempo to the game. In such a tight contest though it was some scrum half fundamentals he had to fall back on – and he did not disappoint.
Taking more and more responsibility as the game wore on, his box kicking was on the money and, combined with some excellent chasing, put the South Africans under huge pressure.
- 28 metre box kick; man and ball; lineout Lions (Handre Pollard tackled to touch by Tom Curry);
- 35m box kick; man and ball; turnover Lions (slightly too long allowing Willie le Roux to step Duhan van der Merwe but SA immediately turned over by the next line of the chase).
- 7m box kick; contestable; South Africa possession (tapped back by van der Merwe but taken by the Springboks).
- 26m box kick; man and ball; scrum Lions (knocked on by Pollard).
- 33m box kick; man and ball; penalty Lions (Smith levelled by Curry – van der Merwe over the ball and Kwagga Smith penalised for standing up without releasing).
- 28m box kick; man and ball; South Africa possession (Smith hammered by van der Merwe – Curry got hands on ball but missed by the ref – could well have been a penalty to the Lions).
- 18m box kick; contestable; Lions’ ball (tapped down by van der Merwe to Lawes).
- 23m box kick; man and ball; scrum Lions (knocked back by le Roux then knocked on on the floor by Smith – both under pressure from van der Merwe).
In fact if you add in Murray’s three box kicks off the bench (one taken by South Africa; two knocked on by South Africa) there is a strong case that the Lions’ 9s kicked better than Faf de Klerk – a man for whom this is his speciality. The Springbok scrum half only managed 5 contestable or man and ball kicks and there was just a single occasion where possession returned to South Africa.