5 things we learned from the Lions’ opening Test win over South Africa

It was far from a straightforward struggle, but the British and Irish Lions came up with the goods in Cape Town on Saturday after beating South Africa 22-17 in the opening Test.

Warren Gatland ’s curveball selection was scrutinised prior to kick-off, but the strength of the Lions bench pulled through to turn the tide in the second half.

Handre Pollard and Dan Biggar scored four penalties apiece while Faf de Klerk and Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed over for South Africa and the visitors, respectively.

Owen Farrell ultimately had a telling impact off the bench as well, slotting a late penalty to ensure the Springboks were left needing a try to get a result in the closing minutes.

But what did we learn from the first portion of this summer’s three-Test series, and how will the teams adjust their respective game plans in the games to come?

Springboks lacking stamina

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi was one of the players who recently had to isolate due to Covid-19 protocols

South Africa have been extremely lacking in game time in the 21 months or so since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, and it showed in Cape Town as their levels dwindled in the second half.

There are certain downsides that come with a full schedule of warm-up fixtures for the Lions, too, but there’s no doubting which team looked fitter in the closing stages.

It’s also a major factor that the Springboks had numerous players serving Covid-19 isolation periods in the weeks before Saturday’s first Test.

How will another week of preparation improve a squad that’s spent so little time together in the last year-and-a-half, and will it be enough to level the series in a week’s time?

Itoje is who we thought he was

Maro Itoje was named man of the match in Cape Town
Maro Itoje was named man of the match in Cape Town

Still just 26 years of age, there’s a chance we may yet see England talisman Maro Itoje travel on three more Lions tours, and that’s a scary prospect for his enemies in the southern hemisphere.

Even when the Lions were on the back foot in the first half, the Saracens star shone as exemplary among far more experienced peers in just about every phase of play.

A constant threat at the line-out, a nuisance at the breakdown and as shrewd as they come in regards to slowing the opposition’s momentum at critical moments.

Itoje helped deny Siya Kolisi a first-half try when bringing him down close to his own line, then won a crucial penalty in the resulting ruck to prevent a score that could have sealed the Lions’ fate.

For all the pre-game talk concerning Alun Wyn Jones ‘ miracle recovery, Itoje was the true colossus at lock for the Lions and won the crucial turnover to end the game.

Pollard remains a potent force

Handre Pollard was a threat for South Africa against the Lions
Handre Pollard was a threat for South Africa both from the tee and in open play

He may not have worn the Springboks jersey since that World Cup win over England, but one would never have guessed it based off Handre Pollard’s contributions on Saturday.

It wasn’t a surprise that South Africa’s fly-half couldn’t last the 80 given his lack of match fitness, having also finished Montpellier’s season contending against injury.

The understanding between Pollard and his half-back partner De Klerk is not to be understated, with the speed between their hands giving South Africa a pace they can’t otherwise replicate.

Elton Jantjies’ wait to be considered a South Africa starter lingers on, with Pollard losing little of his efficacy as the man to keep the Springboks ticking at 10.

Mako is still that man

Mako Vunipola helps tackle South Africa's Elton Jantjies
Mako Vunipola (far right) contributed in the loose, but his biggest impact was at the scrum

Rugby has developed a much greater appreciation for the importance of substitutes in recent years, and one could argue that Mako Vunipola was as vital as any other Lions replacement.

It’s difficult to believe the England loosehead wasn’t even in the matchday 23 until Wyn Jones bowed out due to injury on the morning of the game, with Rory Sutherland taking his place.

Vunipola, 30, moved onto the bench and bossed Frans Malherbe at scrum time when he came on, looking well worthy of his seventh Lions cap in the process.

Farrell works best as a finisher

Farrell came off the bench to convert a crucial Lions penalty
Farrell came off the bench to convert a crucial Lions penalty

Many an eyebrow was raised when Farrell failed to make the starting XV for Saturday’s opener, but it proved the right call after he came to have a big say as a substitute.

Biggar did himself justice after scoring five of his six attempted kicks, and in some ways, Farrell’s intensity makes him the ideal character to offer back-up as a replacement.

Find yourselves behind, and the England fly-half will rally players around him to recover. Bring him on when leading, and Farrell is the kind who will be all too happy to convert a win into a demolition.

Nothing but calm and collected when others might have panicked, Farrell took a few extra seconds off the clock before converting a late penalty to put pressure on the hosts and stood up well in defence.

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