Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and Dan Biggar’s boot helped The British & Irish Lions stage a stunning second-half comeback to beat the Springboks in the first Test.
South Africa showed their world champion pedigree in the first half as Handrè Pollard capitalised on the tourists’ indiscipline by kicking four penalties to put the hosts 12-3 ahead.
But in the first meeting between the two sides in 12 years, heroic performances from Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje ensured the tourists wrestled back momentum after the restart.
Cowan-Dickie’s score and another 11 points from Biggar, in addition to his first-half penalty, saw the Lions take the lead after Faf de Klerk’s scrappy try briefly restored the hosts’ cushion.
Replacement Owen Farrell then sealed a famous 22-17 victory with a further three points late on to put the tourists 1-0 up in the three-Test Castle Lager Lions series.
Not since the Lions in 1989 has a team recovered from losing the opening match to win the series but the Springboks will not go down without a fight as they look to avoid a repeat of 1997.
BREATHLESS START LIVES UP TO HYPE
A slow start had proven costly for the tourists in their first Tour defeat just over a week ago to a near Test-strength South Africa ‘A’ team, which included 18 World Cup winners in the squad.
But there was no sign of the men in red falling into the same trap again in Cape Town, with Gatland’s men getting their hands on the ball early on and signalling their intent.
Bigger sent up a testing kick for Cheslin Kolbe inside two minutes which Duhan van der Merwe came close to snatching but an offside in the build-up relieved the pressure.
The aerial battle continued moments later when Ali Price, preferred to Conor Murray in the No.9 shirt, launched one high for Tom Curry to chase and drag receiver Pollard into touch.
South Africa responded with a physical statement from Lukhanyo Am, who left a monstrous hit on Elliot Daly, before Pollard capitalised on Lions indiscipline to kick the first points on 14 minutes.
A breathless opening quarter to the game ended with another Springbok penalty, with Pollard doubling his side’s lead following a late tackle from Curry on club teammate De Klerk.
And the Springboks continued to exert scoreboard pressure as the half unfolded, kicking 12 points after dominating possession (57%) and carries with 36 to the Lions’ 29.
BREAKDOWN BATTLE AT FOREFRONT
The breakdown battle was always going to be decisive and both sides flexed their muscles in the opening stages of the contest, with two turnovers apiece inside the first six minutes.
Itoje in particular was a colossus for the Lions in the first half, stealing the ball from De Klerk before enjoying his first significant arm wrestle with the imposing Eben Etzebeth.
And shortly after Biggar claimed the tourists’ first points from the tee, Itoje was at it again as the England lock executed a trademark jackal to secure the ball back for the Lions.
Yet the Lions’ intensity at the breakdown also came back to bite them, with Daly conceding another penalty on 22 minutes when he attempted to rob the ball off the floor.
Pollard kicked to touch this time but following a surging run from Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi, Daly was penalised on the floor again and Pollard took advantage to make it 9-3.
A fourth penalty on the half-hour mark allowed Pollard to slot another three points while the Lions were unable to strike back minutes later when Biggar hooked his kick left of the posts.
The tourists did threaten again before the break, with Robbie Henshaw cutting through the Green and Gold shirts, but the Lions found themselves shut out by a Springbok wall.
PHYSICAL STATEMENT AFTER RESTART
The Springboks completely changed their front row for the restart as the infamous ‘Bomb Squad’ arrived on the scene but it was the Lions who made the early physical statement.
An infringement from South Africa handed the tourists a kickable penalty but skipper Alun Wyn Jones, playing in his 10th consecutive Lions Test, instead opted for the corner.
And the Lions’ third visit to the Springbok 22 provided a much-needed lifeline as Cowan-Dickie found his man from the lineout before crashing over from the resulting driving maul.
But it did not take long for hosts to issue their response, with Willie le Roux crossing the whitewash on 47 minutes only for the try to be ruled out by the TMO.
The Springboks kept on coming, though, and they eventually claimed their first try on 50 minutes as De Klerk dotted down after Pieter-Steph du Toit found a gap in the red shirts.
Yet Pollard’s missed conversion kept the deficit within seven points and the Lions capitalised on two more infringements from the hosts with two more penalties from Biggar’s boot.
With the South Africa penalty count rising and the momentum in the tourists’ favour, Gatland rolled the dice with the introduction of Ken Owens, Mako Vunipola and Hamish Watson.
And the Lions took the lead for the first time just after the hour as their physical driving maul paid dividends, with South Africa pinged for bringing it down and Biggar kicking the penalty.
REPLACEMENTS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
A tourist in 2013 and 2017, Vunipola was not a bad option for Gatland to call on as a replacement after Wyn Jones was ruled out of the first Test before the game with a shoulder injury.
The England and Saracens man took Rory Sutherland’s place on the bench as the Scotland prop was handed the No.1 shirt but Vunipola made his entrance for the final quarter of the contest.
And his experience was evident from the moment he stepped on the turf, joining forces with fellow replacements Kyle Sinckler and Owens to win a huge scrum penalty on 68 minutes.
But Vunipola was not the only forward to make a difference as both Itoje and Lawes delivered superb performances in Cape Town, seemingly covering every blade of grass.
Itoje won three turnovers in total, made ten tackles and proved a constant nuisance, capping off his Man of the Match display by securing the ball back at the death as the Lions’ defended ferociously.
Lawes also made ten tackles, eight carries and a turnover during his 73 minutes while Jones, having recovered from dislocating his shoulder less than a month ago, contributed ten tackles himself.
It all added up to a monumental second-half display from the men in red. They managed to do what their predecessors in 2009 didn’t and open the series with a win. One down, two more to go.