The grand old Springbok citadel of Ellis Park has rarely been more achingly empty but the British & Irish Lions will take significant heart from this opening foray on South African soil. The scoreboard does not lie: the touring side are up and running and showing sufficient early promise to suggest they can create problems with ball in hand in the coming weeks.
While not everything went to hand, as is invariably the case with players still growing accustomed to each other, the tempo at which the Lions sought to play was highly encouraging, resulting in a haul of four tries for the left-wing Josh Adams and a debut score for the touring side’s youngest player, the 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit.
There were also positive contributions from a trio of Scots – Hamish Watson, Chris Harris and Finn Russell – who all did enough to merit a positive mention in head coach Warren Gatland’s debrief. The Lions will meet stronger opposition than their local provincial namesakes but the energy of Watson, the defensive efforts of Harris and the enterprise of Russell all made a favourable impression.
If there was the odd caveat – Russell and Owen Farrell will clearly need a bit more time together to locate the same midfield wavelength – the pacy late impact of Elliot Daly and Sam Simmonds also boded well for the stiffer challenges ahead. No one will recall this fixture, however, with more obvious pleasure than the 26-year Adams, the top scorer at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, who once again underlined what a quality poacher he has become.
“You’ve got to make a statement every chance you get and I hope I’ve done that,” Adams said afterwards. No individual has scored more tries in a Lions fixture since another Welsh wing, Shane Williams, managed five tries against Manawatu in 2005.
On such an abbreviated tour, and given the Covid-19 backdrop, it represented a more than decent start all round and prompted a bullish reaction from Gatland. “We haven’t come here to just make up the numbers. We’re very motivated to leave South Africa with a Test series victory,” said Gatland. Aside from the Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw, still nursing a sore hamstring, there are no fresh injury concerns either.
Four years ago the jetlagged Lions were falling asleep on the bus en route to their first game against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. This time around they looked far more alert, channelling the can-do spirit of John Bentley’s spectacular score against the Gauteng Lions in 1997 and setting out to try and match the 74-10 win over the same provincial opposition in 2009.
Their first try after three minutes, in particular, was a beauty with Russell cleverly opting to run rather than kick before Harris’s chip fell nicely for a speeding Rees-Zammit, the youngest Lions debutant since 1986.
Watson was also a ball of energy and powered through some slightly questionable defence four minutes later to touch down under the posts and help his side into a healthy 14-0 lead. Another lively Scot, Ali Price, also grabbed himself a five pointer courtesy of some home doziness, a long lineout throw clean over the top from Jamie George finding Farrell who swivelled and put Price into a ridiculously big midfield gap to score.
It is exactly the sort of unexpected, well-executed ploy that the Lions will need to wrong-foot the mountainous Bok forwards in the Test series and there would have been a fourth try from close range for prop Wyn Jones had Courtney Lawes not been penalised for dangerous ruck clear-out.
The man doing most to keep the hosts in the game was their impressive back-row forward Vincent Tshituka, who finished off a long-range break out to peg the half-time margin back to 21-7. Within 49 seconds of the restart, though, the Lions were back on the scoresheet, Adams blasting his way over.
Despite another home try for Rabs Maxwane and a stirring burst from Tshituka, which required a fine covering tackle from skipper Stuart Hogg, the rest was largely one way traffic. The pick of the Lions’ remaining tries were a lovely short-iron chip from Russell, whose range of attacking kicks are a constant threat, into the grateful arms of Adams and a sharp little burst of acceleration from the replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies. Give either of them a yard of space and the outcome is seldom in doubt.
The Lions will now meet the Sharks on this same pitch on Wednesday. Gatland, meanwhile, has insisted that his medical team have gone “over and above” in terms of their duty of care towards hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie who came off the bench less than a week after being knocked cold during last Saturday’s Premiership final.
The Exeter man played the last 11 minutes of this fixture, with Gatland making clear that “a world-leading consultant has given him the all-clear”.