The British and Irish Lions suffered their first defeat of this year’s tour on Wednesday evening as they went down 17-13 to a strong South Africa ‘A’ side.
The clash in Cape Town was dubbed as an unofficial fourth Test match by some observers due to the strength of the Springboks’ A team which featured numerous World Cup winners and a combined total of over 520 Test caps.
Afterwards, Sky Sports pundits Maggie Alphonsi, Sam Warburton, Ronan O’Gara and Sir Ian McGeechan came up with their key takeaways from the match with the start of the Test series against South Africa under 10 days away…
Alphonsi: Itoje deserves Test start
Maro Itoje was one of the stand-out performers for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and World Rugby Hall of Fame member Alphonsi believes the England second row has shown Lions head coach Warren Gatland more than enough to earn a start for the Test series.
“He was brilliant, and he played like a back row – he was everywhere,” Alphonsi said. “If you think about his stats, he won six of their own line-outs and made a steal, and in the line-out he was absolutely aggressive and put pressure on (Eben) Etzebeth.
“He was everywhere in regards to attack, trying to look for those offloads, and we’ve seen this a lot for England in the Six Nations where he looked for the charge-down.
“But, for me, what he does so well is leading the defence. When he takes a step up, everyone follows around him and I think he’s really stepped up and shown he deserves that No 4 jersey for the Test squad.”
Warburton: Work to do at the breakdown
The Lions were out of sorts in the first half, conceding two tries and trailing 17-3 at the break, but while Warburton believes areas such as the aerial battle and kicking game are easily fixed, the former Lions captain feels the tourists must do more work on winning the battle at the breakdown.
“The breakdown is hard because when you’re in the Lions team you’re preparing two teams a week and you focus on structure in the week – line-outs, defensive systems, attack plays and scrums,” Warburton said.
“The actual skill of getting to the breakdown first is kind of overlooked because you’re looking so much at structure and I think it’s something they need to visit in training.
“It’s a skill like passing which every player needs to do and it’s only highlighted when you see a first half like that where South Africa were all over the ball.
“I’ve noticed it creeping in the last few games, the Lions are slow and that first man is slow, so when South Africa win that jackal turnover it’s not necessarily good turnover, it’s because the Lions are too slow and too high, so that’s mindset you can change in training.”
O’Gara: Springboks not suited to chasing the game
Three-time Lions tourist O’Gara saw signs of what Gatland’s side can expect from the Springboks in the upcoming Test matches and pointed to the importance of not allowing the hosts to gain any sort of lead.
“If they’re smart in attack and keep the ball, then get tempo in their game, they can cause major problems for South Africa,” O’Gara said. “I think this game could be a turning point in the tour.
“South Africa are a very different team if you have to chase against them rather than lead against them. Their game-plan isn’t suited to being behind, but if they lead and keep controlling the scrum and with their aggressive defence and kicking plan, that very much suits them.
“If the Lions were to lead, I think it causes all kinds of problems and if they can be brave with the ball, I think the Lions will get a lot out of the next three Tests.”
McGeechan: Second half was encouraging
The two tries the Lions conceded against South Africa ‘A’ came on the back of their own errors and McGeechan, who coached the team on two tours of South Africa, pointed to how well they competed once those were eliminated from their game.
“When you look at it, if the Lions felt South Africa’s pressure in the first 40 minutes, they know all they’ve got not to do is give points away,” McGeechan said.
“In the end, all of the points came from what the Lions were doing rather than what South Africa were doing and that is a big plus from the Lions.
“You have a kicking game which is well-structured, you keep a set piece which is structured, and you don’t force things, and then gradually it opens up.
“Then you get tempo in the game because your breakdowns are getting so much quicker one after the other, which is what they did in the second half very well.”
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