"Beasted" Lions may rue missed opportunity
Durban, Saturday evening
"You take whatever you can get in this game," said a beaming Springboks coach Peter de Villiers as he contemplated a 26-21 victory over the Lions in Saturday's first Test.
He had the look of a man who knew his side had survived an almighty scare, but was content in the knowledge they were unlikely to be as careless next time.
Make no mistake, this was an opportunity missed by the Lions, and the concern must be that there is no guarantee it will come knocking again next week.
Sure, they played some electrifying rugby at times, won the try count 3-2 and saw another three try-scoring chances go begging.
Ugo Monye, twice, and Mike Phillips came agonisingly close to claiming further scores. If those had materialised, the Lions would be celebrating a famous victory.
Not many teams, especially ones assembled in the space of four weeks, come to South Africa and rattle the Springboks with their attacking verve to this extent.
Some of the match statistics told the story, but not all of it. Five clean line breaks from the Lions, none for the Boks. The tourists enjoyed 56% of the possession, made the hosts make 90 tackles, compared to their 33, and got over the advantage line 32 times compared to nine for South Africa.
Unfortunately for the Lions, other details were not so favourable. They lost three of their own line-outs, two of their own scrums, and the penalty count went against them 13-12, seven of those conceded in the first half.
Five of them were awarded for scrum infringements, most against Lions tight-head prop Phil Vickery.
The 33-year-old has thrown his battered body into thousands of scrums over a long and successful career, but he clearly couldn't fathom what New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence believed he was supposed to be doing against the Springboks' "Beast" of a prop Tendai Mtawarira.
"Bryce said that Phil was constantly boring in," explained captain Paul O'Connell. "I didn't think so but it is hard to see. Phil is a very experienced player and how he was seen to be making the same mistake four or five times in a row is beyond me.
"You can understand a guy giving away one or two penalties but every time he just seemed to be reffing us and not them."
Strong words, but whether action will follow is highly unlikely.
Ian McGeechan will take the matter up with International Rugby Board referees chief Paddy O'Brien as part of the official protocol before next week's second Test, in an attempt to seek clarification on the issue.
But even if O'Brien decides Lawrence's interpretation was incorrect, or unfavourable towards one team, the damage has been done.
The pity is that the refereeing issue clouded an otherwise brilliant occasion and spell-binding contest, that while uneven for the first half, burst into glorious life in the second.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moment we've been waiting for since 1997," announced the stadium PA as Boks captain John Smit led his side out to a raucous reception, while O'Connell gathered his players into a huddle on the pitch.
Shamefully for the organisers, there were nearly 4,000 empty seats in the sun-lit amphitheatre, but the red shirts massed at both ends and in the giant East stand should have been a reassuring presence for the Lions.
But they had precious little to shout about for the opening quarter as Jones missed two penalties, Monye's first effort was ruled out by the video referee and the Boks plundered a try and two penalties to take a 13-0 lead.
Tom Croft's try offered encouragement but at 19-7 at half-time, and 26-7 six minutes into the second period, those Lions supporters must have feared the worse.
That the Springboks remained scoreless for the final 34 minutes, and the tourists almost engineered one of the great comebacks with some stirring rugby, means they will travel to Pretoria next Saturday with hope, if not confidence.
The Lions have only once recovered from losing the first Test of a series to win it, in Australia 20 years ago.
That was McGeechan's first tour as head coach, but the odds against him adding a third Lions triumph to his CV, after also guiding the 1997 tourists to victory here, are now a whole lot longer.
He understandably took great encouragement from his side's attacking fluency, praising them for some "outstanding" rugby at times.
Both he and O'Connell maintained belief was still strong, and it will need to be.
For while the Lions can certainly give fewer penalties away next week, it would be a surprise if they can create as many try-scoring opportunities at Loftus Versfeld, the home of Super 14 champions the Bulls.
If you are looking for omens though, the Lions have won three of their four Tests in Pretoria since the Second World War, in 1955, 1974 and 1980, and McGeechan has never lost a second Test as either a Lions player or coach.
"We know the Lions won't lie down, they will come back twice as strong after that," said Springboks captain John Smit, whose return to the field for the final three minutes - to "calm the ship" as he put it - provided timely leadership when his side most needed it.
"As much as the advantage lies with us, both teams are going to be fighting next week - one to finish it, one to survive - so the pressure will probably be twice as big."
That's an awful lot of pressure. Can the Lions handle it, or have they already self-destructed?