The British & Irish Lions were always likely to roar past the Sharks in the second half on Saturday, but the opening 40 minutes at least provided some much-needed competitiveness, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Even before the Lions set foot in South Africa, both the visitors from the northern hemisphere and the hosts SA Rugby knew this was going to be an extremely challenging tour.
No fans, no atmosphere, life in a bubble, completely altered preparation, depleted franchises for the warm-up matches … and the list goes on.
But already it’s proven to be more challenging than anyone could actually have imagined as certain worst-case scenarios have played out.
A serious Covid-19 outbreak that has spread through the majority of the Bok group has forced the world champions into isolation, depriving them of a week of training and a crucial second Test against Georgia.
For the Lions, a Covid scare of their own this past week forced them to rock up at Ellis Park on Wednesday night with just a solitary backline replacement and a vastly changed starting lineup as they sought any means possible to fulfil the first fixture against the Sharks.
In that midweek tour game the Lions still cruised to a 54-7 victory (which followed a 56-14 win over the local Lions) before heading into a rematch against the Durban-based side on Saturday after the Bulls had to withdraw due to several positive tests in their camp.
All of these setbacks have resulted in a stop-start tour that is stuttering rather than roaring towards the three-Test match series, but even just successfully reaching that point is starting to feel like something that would be worth celebrating.
Yet, over the first 40-odd minutes of Saturday night’s rematch between the Sharks and Lions, there were finally some fireworks to enjoy for a tour that has otherwise been running on fumes.
Heading into the second half the score was deadlocked at 26-26, and while the Lions will surely acknowledge that they were uncharacteristically sloppy and unstructured in the first period, the Sharks also finally offered up some fight and ‘mongrel’.
Whereas on Wednesday a young Sharks side had looked shellshocked in the opening exchanges, this time the coastal side made a statement from the moment Werner Kok bounced a would-be tackler back to the turf.
For the Springbok coaches watching on from isolation, it would have brought a smile to their faces to see the Sharks initially applying some defensive pressure and cutting down the time and space for the Lions to marshal proceedings with their high-paced approach.
When the Sharks brought some linespeed and physicality, the Lions were suddenly taken out of their comfort zone, and a couple of turnovers allowed the local franchise to build a bit of scoreboard pressure.
In the context of what has so far been a sequence of one-sided tour matches, it was desperately frustrating that Jaden Hendrikse’s red card seemed to drain the life out of the Sharks’ fighting spirit early in the second half, but the Lions would always have been expected to pull away to a comfortable win.
Lions coach Warren Gatland will surely be pleased that some of his players finally faced some adversity, and yet there were also some warning signs.
So far on this tour, the Lions have yet to display the sort of physicality and forward firepower that would panic the Springboks, who at this stage will need to take what they can get.
Besides the fact that the Boks have lost a week of training and seen their rematch against Georgia cancelled, they are also set to lose one of their home-ground “advantages” now that the final two Tests are likely to be played in Cape Town rather than on the highveld.
All this uncertainty has only served to add to the unpredictability of the three-Test series, but Saturday’s opening half at Loftus breathed some much-needed life into this tour, while getting the competitive juices flowing again.