The British and Irish Lions benefited from poor second-half South African discipline and TMO official Marius Jonker to claim a precious 22-17 victory in their first Test of their summer tour.
Warren Gatland’s side were themselves sloppy in the first-half and conceded six penalties in Cape Town, with Handre Pollard kicking over four times to give South Africa a 12-3 lead at the interval.
But the Lions came out firing in the second-half with Luke Cowan-Dickie going over immediately after half-time and while Faf de Klerk put South Africa back in front by going over the line, Dan Biggar picked up on the hosts’ own ill-discipline to haul the tourists 19-17 ahead.
The Lions took advantage of South Africa’s poor second-half ill-discipline to win the first Test of their tour 22-17 in Cape Town
Dan Biggar kicked Warren Gatland’s side to victory on Saturday after South Africa conceded several second half penalties
But TMO came to the Lions’ rescue when Damian de Allende went over late on for South Africa, but Jonker – who dominated the pre-series headline over potential bias – spotted a knock-on from Cheslin Kolbe and ruled the effort out.
Owen Farrell came off the bench to kick over another penalty to open up a five-point lead and Gatland’s side held on for a vital first Test victory.
South Africa were playing only their second international since lifting the 2019 World Cup but there was little sign of rustiness as their simple gameplan based around territory and forcing penalties initially unfolded as planned.
A fractured build-up that forced the entire Springboks squad to self-isolate for six days as well as key players such as Siya Kolisi and Pollard testing positive for coronavirus had no apparent impact as they played to their strengths beautifully.
The Cape Town encounter started strongly with some heavy tackles – including Lukhanyo Am on Elliot Daly in the first minutes
It was often an ugly spectacle and at times the Lions looked slightly lost, failing to gain a meaningful foothold up-front and with half-backs Ali Price and Biggar unable to provide direction.
But a dramatic swing took place early in the second half as South Africa’s discipline collapsed as a resurgent Lions began stamping their authority in every area while Biggar kicked the points.
The feared Springboks pack went from bullies to bullied and although the world champions hustled a try through Faf De Klerk, they looked vulnerable across the pitch.
The Lions bench came on to close out an arm wrestle of a series opener with Farrell, who had replaced Biggar, slotting a 79th-minute penalty.
A predictably ferocious opening saw swarming breakdown work by both teams interrupted by persistent kicking and a savage tackle by Lukhanyo Am on Elliot Daly.
Already the Lions were looking to play more rugby as typified by Anthony Watson attempting to run the ball out from his own 22, while South Africa were content to kick, mostly through De Klerk.
Pollard drew first blood with a penalty and when Tom Curry made a late tackle on De Klerk, he added another three points as an opening quarter controlled by the Springboks came to an end.
The Lions made many sloppy errors in the first-half, conceding six penalties including Tom Curry’s late tackle on Faf de Klerk
The world champions took advantage with Handre Pollard kicking over four times to establish a 12-3 lead for South Africa
Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, made his first appearance as a waterboy and soon after Biggar landed a penalty with the Lions benefiting from Maro Itoje’s predatory work at the breakdown.
But the tourists’ indiscipline was becoming a recurring problem as Pollard booted another six points to extend the lead to 12-3 while Biggar failed with a routine shot at goal.
A tense first-half neared its conclusion with Daly just falling short with a long-range penalty attempt and the Lions’ hearts were in their mouths when Robbie Henshaw stepped through a gap in defence and raced upfield until Willie Le Roux arrived to tackle the Ireland centre.
South Africa changed their entire front row at half-time but when play restarted they came under immediate pressure as Alun Wyn Jones opted for the corner rather than taking the points.
Warren Gatland’s Lions came out firing in the first minutes of the second half and Luke Cowan-Dickie went over straight away
The ambition paid off as the Lions constructed an unstoppable line-out maul that swept them over the whitewash with Cowan-Dickie touching down.
Le Roux had a try disallowed for a marginal offside call when Am kicked ahead but TMO Marius Jonker had no issue with De Klerk’s 50th-minute try.
Makazole Mapimpi and Pieter-Steph Du Toit were heavily involved as the Lions failed to capitalise on a wild pass by Pollard and De Klerk arrived to poach the try from close range.
TMO official Marius Jonker ruled out a try for Willie Le Roux due to offside – the first of two second-half tries to be chalked off
Jonker did help award a try for Faf de Klerk in the second-half to hand South Africa a 17-13 lead in Cape Town
South Africa lost their cool and kept on conceding penalties – with three Dan Biggar penalties putting the Lions in front
But successive penalties by Biggar that punished the Springboks for repeatedly straying offside kept the Lions in the hunt.
The momentum had now swung totally towards the tourists and for the first time they were ahead courtesy of Biggar’s boot, setting up nail-biting climax.
Nerves frayed once more when only a Cheslin Kolbe knock-on saw a Damian De Allende try chalked off and it was Farrell who had the final say.
The hosts thought they had the lead back but Jonker spotted a knock on from Cheslin Kolbe (second right) in the build-up
Owen Farrell came off the bench to kick over to establish a 22-17 lead with Warren Gatland’s side holding on for a vital victory
Gatland’s Lions have now set the tone for what could be an excellent next fortnight of rugby ahead of Tests two and three