Every big call went against the Lions, but South Africa were clever in targeting a worrying weakness

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South Africa dominated the second half winning the second 40 minutes 21-0 - AFP
South Africa dominated the second half winning the second 40 minutes 21-0 - AFP

More than any team in world rugby, the Springboks are masters of sniffing out weakness and ruthlessly targeting it, like Floyd Mayweather punching a swollen eye.

In their first Test victory, full-back Stuart Hogg had looked shaky under the high ball. What were wobbles became a full on collapse this time. That was not just limited to Hogg. Wings Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe similarly suffered under a high-ball barrage as a lack of confidence became contagious.

In the second half of the first Test, the Lions took control of the aerial battle, which was pinpointed by head coach Jacques Nienaber as the prime reason for their 22-17 defeat. This was a lesson that the Springboks clearly took to heart, sending Makazole Mapimpi to retrieve the high balls like an over-enthusiastic spaniel.

It brings into question head coach Warren Gatland’s decision to jettison Liam Williams not just from the starting XV but from the matchday squad entirely. Hogg has other talents as a full-back, none of which were in evidence here, but Williams’ point of difference has always been as the best bomb defuser since Jeremy Renner in the Hurt Locker. Williams’ absence now seems like a glaring mistake. Hogg’s poor evening was highlighted when Mapimpi ran through him for the Springboks’ first try.

Watson and Van der Merwe’s places will also be under threat. The wings touched the ball just three times each, Van der Merwe not gaining a single metre; between them they conceded four turnovers and four handling errors. It was indicative of the Lions’ poverty of attacking ambition that fly-half Dan Biggar made just three passes which contributed to a specatcle that was less a rugby match and more a historical recreation of Rorke’s Drift, only minus the rifles and spears.

Technique effectively went out the window as both the Lions and the Springboks served up a pub car park slobber-knocker. You would say that it was one for the purists but truly only a certain breed of rugby masochists could find something to love about this match featuring a succession of high bombs and low blows. The only beauty was in its grimness.

Not that Gatland and Rassie Erasmus, whose hit job on Nic Berry did so much to warp this contest, will care too much. Their job is to win the series and if a whole generation of children get scarred for life watching this then so be it.

Yet while there was little to love, you had to admire the sheer cussedness of both sides. The Lions defence was magnificent. In the first half, they did not miss a single tackle as they absorbed wave after wave of Springbok attacks. Captain Alun Wyn Jones was at the heart of the defensive stands when South Africa were in full on rutting-stag mould.

It was only when South Africa mixed up their attacking tactics in the second half that they found a way through the red wall overseen by defence coach Steve Tandy. First it was Handre Pollard shaping to pass and then chipping perfectly to Mapimpi and then Faf de Klerk putting in a cute grubber for Lukhanyo Am to just about ground the ball.

Am does just enough to persuade the match officials to award the try - SKY SPORT
Am does just enough to persuade the match officials to award the try - SKY SPORT

It was, however, no more of a grounding than that of Robbie Henshaw’s, which was ruled out by the officials at the end of the first half. And in the gloom we must acknowledge Erasmus as a master of a dark arts.

Every big decision went against the Lions. When Cheslin Kolbe took Conor Murray out in the air resulting in the Lions scrum-half landing on his head it was a surefire red card. However, referee Ben O’Keeffe somehow talked himself into claiming that it was on his back. It was even more bizarre that De Klerk’s high, no-arms tackle on Murray was not even given a second glance. Erasmus will have no regrets. Even if it has put all notions of integrity and respect in rugby on a bonfire pyre, the Springboks are 1-1 in the series.

At half-time, the Springboks should have been down to 13 men. Instead, with their full complement and the Bomb Squad this time detonating on the cue, South Africa slowly turned the screw, dominating the setpiece and the maul.

It had been such a point of pride for Gatland that they have held at least parity if not dominance at the maul. “We dented their ego”, Gatland said of the job in that department in their defeat to South Africa A.

Now it was the Lions’ pride which was battered and bruised. Both tries came directly from a motoring Springbok maul and the Lions seem to have no answer to the South Africa lineout. At one point, they were pinching Ken Owens’ throws at will.

All the things that worked so well for the Lions last week in the second half - the setpiece and the aerial contests - fell to pieces. The Springboks will now head into the decisive third Test with the momentum of a boulder falling down Table Mountain. Stopping it will rank as the finest achievement of Gatland’s coaching career.

Erasmus rant paid dividends, the force is now with South Africa

By Mick Cleary

Rassie Erasmus has a lot to answer for. We are in danger of seeing the death of the sport by a thousand referrals, rugby union taking on the guise of stop-start American football. It made for bitty, patchy viewing, the 62-minute first half matching the Erasmus video nasty. There was well over two hours on the clock by the time the final whistle sounded.

Winning a Test match is one thing, restoring a reputation quite another. The Springboks will not care one jot, though, that their standing has been diminished by the Erasmus shenanigans. After all, circling the wagons runs deep in their psyche, the very making of a battle-hardened race.

This was their payback moment, their ego dented by events last week. That sense of each other, that elemental energy, that desire to physically impose themselves proved decisive with second-half tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am. The Springbok pack flexed muscle and it all fell into place. They are back in the ball game, the arrival of second-half replacement Lood de Jager having a monumental impact. South Africa won the arm wrestle as well as the aerial game. They will take that renewed air into the series decider.

It was a big momentum shift and it is now the Lions who have to find a way to hit back. Erasmus’s ploy, unedifying as it was, paid dividends. The Springboks’ director of rugby did demean his position by his antics. One of the sacred tenets of rugby is respect for the referee. Any backchat and offenders are marched back 10 metres. By that yardstick, Erasmus should have ended up in Namibia.

The world's most controversial water boy - Rassie Erasmus - GETTY IMAGES
The world's most controversial water boy - Rassie Erasmus - GETTY IMAGES

Even the dignified totem that is Siya Kolisi has been drawn into it, speaking of the lack of respect with which he was treated by Nic Berry, the first-Test referee. That is a loaded accusation. Yet has he ever seen how Owen Farrell struggles to influence referees? It is nothing personal. There was better interaction with Ben O’Keeffe. Kolisi was in his element with a superb try-saving tackle and rip on Robbie Henshaw just before half-time.

There was a lot to rectify. The Boks did at least realise they had one of the most dangerous players in the world in Cheslin Kolbe. The wing was Billy-no-mates in the first Test, ignored and out on his own. He touched the ball more in the opening 10 minutes than he had all game last week. Kolbe, though, was lucky to escape without a yellow card for a high collision with Tom Curry, taking a blow to the head himself in the process. Moments later, he was reckless in taking out Conor Murray in the air and was sent to the sin-bin. He was lucky it was not a red card.

South Africa are at their best when they are at their most disciplined. Again, they were initially wild and errant, ceding nine penalties by the halfway mark. That improved as they imposed themselves.

Fortune was not in their favour when flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, one of their go-to men, was forced off midway through the first half with a shoulder injury. The arrival of De Jager early in the second half enhanced their line-out lot.

South Africa craved fluency and they got it without minutes of the second-half restart, Handre Pollard’s deft kick finding Mapimpi, who stretched over for his 15th try in 16 Tests. Their driving maul was a thing of beauty. Faf de Klerk’s smart kick through teed up Am’s try.

It was an emphatic performance, a comeback of real status. The force is back with the world champions.

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