Lions must heed breakdown lesson
First the good news. The Lions didn't lose. Their South African tour is still on track.
James Hook kicked all his goals, they scrummaged well, and will not be playing at altitude again until the second Test in Pretoria in three weeks.
But after the euphoria of Wednesday's dismantling of the Golden Lions, the 26-24 victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was a major reality check.
You could see it in the faces of the Lions players at the end. They knew they were the width of a goalpost away from an embarrassing defeat, and it didn't feel good.
If Louis Strydom's drop-goal attempt had passed inside, rather than outside, the left upright a minute from time, their pride would have been dented even further.
It may be as close as the Lions come to defeat before the real business starts, given the decision by Springboks coach Peter de Villers not to allow his frontline players to turn out against the tourists before the Test series.
But a fortnight away from that first, all-important, set-to at Durban's ABSA Stadium,
Ian McGeechan - while taking solace in victory - would surely have been hoping for more pointers towards his Test XV than he received on Saturday.
Of the nine players making their first starts of the tour, only a third probably did themselves any favours with regard to pressing their claims.
Fly-half Hook gave himself every chance of a place on the bench in Durban in a fortnight with a composed display, landing all six of his kicks at goal and creating a try for Keith Earls with a delicately weighted chip.
The Welshman's form may have been patchy this season, but he looked a class act here.
The backline rarely fired in the way he would have liked, but that owed much to the poor quality of ball as the Lions were beaten up at the breakdown.
Scrum-half Harry Ellis, who scrapped away diligently, was constantly being forced to dig out possession at the base of rucks, if it came back at all.
The Leicester man is also likely to be on the bench behind Mike Phillips come Test time, but the rest of the backs on show - Lee Byrne apart - did themselves few favours.
Shane Williams had one or two runs off his wing, but the forced pass that Corne Uys intercepted to gallop away for the Cheetahs' third try was symptomatic of the wing wizard's desperation to make an impression, and his inability to do so.
If McGeechan sticks to his intention to pick the Test side on form, it is hard to conceive Williams will be running out in the number 11 jersey in Durban.
Leigh Halfpenny and Luke Fitzgerald had few opportunites to shine on their Lions debuts, while Earls' obvious finishing ability was undermined by his inability to hold onto the ball in contact on occasion.
He wasn't alone. One powerful run onto an Ellis pass in the first half showed the potential of Andy Powell, but too often the big number eight sought contact rather than
space and surrendered possession as a result.
The Cardiff Blues man lost ground to Jamie Heaslip in the race for a Test place, but could still be an effective weapon off the bench.
The 10 minutes Stephen Ferris spent off the field proved costly for the Lions, but the Northern Irishman impressed with his speed of thought and foot for the other 70.
He and Tom Croft both have plenty to offer, and it will be a close call for the blind-side position. Joe Worsley is still in the mix, depending on which approach the Lions take, but he was ineffective at open-side on Saturday.
The Lions lacked a forager on the ground where Cheetahs flanker Heinrich Brussow did a one-man demolition job. Martyn Williams, who would have started but for a shoulder problem, might conclude this wasn't a bad game to miss.
Donncha O'Callaghan was solid alongside Paul O'Connell but is probably still fifth in the locking pecking order.
The front row of Andrew Sheridan, Ross Ford - two slightly non-straight line-out throws apart - and Euan Murray can all take credit for another encouraging outing at scrum-time, an area where they will hope to gain an advantage over the Springboks.
But none of them produced a definitive display elsewhere which demanded their inclusion.
Having stuck to his word and given every member of the squad, Gordon D'Arcy apart, a start in the opening three matches, McGeechan's selection for Wednesday's fourth tour match against a Sharks side denuded of 10 Springboks, will be revealing.
The Test side is likely to have only one full outing together - against Western Province next Saturday in Cape Town - before they tackle South Africa, so those picked for Wednesday may conclude they are not in the forefront of the coaches' minds.
As they leave behind the Highveld for a few weeks, the cooler, clearer air down at sea level should provide some relief.
But some hard thinking, talking and training awaits. The lessons from Saturday were painful, and they have a fortnight to sink in.