The Springboks invested in defence and were richly rewarded when dynamo Cheslin Kolbe made the most of his only try-scoring opportunity while veteran Morne Steyn drilled two crucial penalties to clinch the 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions in Cape Town, write ZELIM NEL.
With both teams grappling to get a foothold on the sheer rockface of referee Mathieu Raynal’s thought process, South Africa reverted to the familiarity of their renowned defensive structures and let the tourists carry the ball, and the risk.
Raynal’s pernickety adjudication of the lineout destabilised the contest as penalties hoofed into touch by both teams unexpectedly ended in free kicks. The uncertainty, coupled with the early exit of Lions pivot Dan Biggar and the early entry of Finn Russell, tilted the territory and possession in the visitors’ favour and convinced the world champions against the perils of being drawn into a shootout.
Extolled by all of Scotland rugby, Russell’s playmaking virtues were on full display after he replaced Biggar in the 11th minute to coolly connect with Josh Adams on a pin-point kick-pass that unlocked the Bok press.
The Lions dominated possession and territory (more than 65% of each) in the first half for a 10-6 lead as the Boks struggled to reverse the field in the face of Raynal’s calls.
Customarily, approximately 70 percent of penalties are awarded against the defending team. But when the Lions jogged off at half time having made more than two thirds of the carries while conceding 50 percent of the penalties, the Boks recognised the buy signal and invested in TackleCoin.
Lood de Jager, Damian de Allende and Kwagga Smith led the defence for tackle volume as South Africa finished with almost 190 tackle attempts to the Lions’ 80 and having conceded five penalties to eight in the second half.
The tourists initially drove up the value of the Boks’ tactical decisions by putting kickable penalties into touch at crucial junctures of the match and they were made to pay at the end of the third quarter when Kolbe struck.
The Bok escape artist had spent the first 215 minutes of the series on mute, feeding off scraps. But when world-class centre Lukhanyo Am latched onto an unclaimed contestable, stepped a defender and put Willie le Roux into space, Kolbe’s pupils dilated and the space in front of him tripled in size.
The dynamo went outside-in on Liam Williams and then fended Luke Cowan-Dickie for a try that must have left Lions coach Warren Gatland gritting his teeth as to how the Boks had burgled the lead on just 35 percent possession.
The world champions’ tactics accrued compound interest with decisive scrum penalties from the likes of replacement loosehead prop Trevor Nyakane and Steyn was the icing on the cake.
Injected into the game after Handre Pollard duffed two shots at goal in the third quarter, the 37-year-old veteran, whose long-range series-clinching penalty in the 2009 series is the stuff of legend, made his 2021 series debut off the bench with 15 minutes to go – almost five years after his last appearance for South Africa – and drilled two clutch penalties for the win.
The Lions ended the match having made 65 percent of the carries, accounting for 75 percent of the defenders beaten and linebreaks, and two thirds of the offloads while the Boks underlined an unpopular but unchanging truism of the game, playing less rugby to convert 35 percent possession into 54 percent of the points to dominate the one stat that matters most: 19-16.