It was just before halftime when the British & Irish Lions eventually made their way into the 22-metre area of the South Africa A team.
The local side, who resembled the Springboks in all but name, had built up a comfortably 17-3 lead up to that point, courtesy of tries by Sbu Nkosi and Lukhanyo Am.
But now they were defending their tryline, with the Lions threatening to fight their way back into the game.
The visitors bashed away at the South Africans, even taking tap penalties in an attempt to breach the green wall in front of them.
But it was to no avail. Even without their defence guru and now head coach Jacques Nienaber shouting instructions from the sidelines, the SA A side produced a monumental defensive effort that was reminiscent of a similar effort at the 2019 World Cup final. On that occasion, England also put over 20 phases together, but sheer bloody-mindedness from the Boks kept them out.
What made Wednesday night’s effort even more remarkable was the fact that first Faf de Klerk was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle, and soon after that, Marco van Staden for a breakdown infringement.
Being unable to score would’ve been deflating to Warren Gatland’s team, but as Eben Etzebeth said in a post-match TV interview, it gave SA A real confidence.
Talking about Etzebeth, the No 4 lock led the way in getting stuck into the Lions. He was all over the show – busy in the lineouts and driving mauls, putting in big hits on defence, carrying the ball powerfully and even sparking Nkosi’s try when he charged-down a kick from Owen Farrell.
Despite the lack of preparation due to Covid-19 positive cases and the cancelled second Test against Georgia, the South Africans showed that there was still a lot of fight in them, and they will not take a step back to the Lions once the first Test kicks off next Saturday at Cape Town Stadium.
They won the physical collisions and did enough throughout to hold on for a 17-13 victory. And it was done without a number of stalwarts – captain Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe and Lood de Jager upfront.
“The Lions were physical, really slick handling, brutal confrontations. That’s what we needed, and that’s what they also received from our side. It looked really intense and physical,” SA director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said afterwards. But the key thing is that the South Africans got on top in most of those confrontations. Sure, both teams largely held their fire on attack as they didn’t want to give everything away before the Test series starts.
For SA A, halfbacks De Klerk and Morne Steyn used box-kicks and little chips into space, while centres Damian de Allende and Am ran hard up the middle. Willie le Roux also employed his left boot regularly, and wings Nkosi and Cheslin Kolbe had to be content with counter-attacking opportunities.
Similarly, the Lions’ Owen Farrell tried several cross-kicks on attack, but strike-runners such as Louis Rees-Zammit and Anthony Watson didn’t do much damage. We know that the real thing will only kick off next Saturday, but at the moment, the Bok coaches should feel relieved and pleased, knowing that they will get even stronger over the next week.