These remain uncertain days for the British & Irish Lions, despite a second heavy sandbagging of the Sharks in four days. The first Test against the Springboks, scarily, is now less than a fortnight away and scoring 11 tries against opponents reduced to 14 men for much of the second half is not much of a barometer for what lies ahead.
There are also a few niggling injury issues to complicate Warren Gatland’s plans, the latest necessitating the abrupt call-up of Harlequins’ Marcus Smith as cover for Finn Russell. The Scotland fly-half has damaged his achilles tendon and looks extremely doubtful for the start of a Test series which is going to be an entirely different plate of biltong. “We’re well aware how tough the Springboks are going to be and the physicality they’re going to bring,” warned Gatland. “It’s going to be tough for us and we probably haven’t been tested for 80 minutes like we need to be.”
Gatland admitted it had been the most chaotic few days he has experienced as a coach: “There has been chaos. It’s then about adapting to that and then changing. That’s been the mantra. I thought we handled it during the week. I see it as a positive. If there’s anything wrong with us, that doesn’t upset us. We’re able to make decisions quickly and move on.”
With Maro Itoje pulling out before kick off with a gastric bug and five tour party members stuck in Covid-19 isolation until Wednesday, perhaps it was no surprise the Lions’ lacked directness and authority at times, not least in the opening 40 minutes.
On the plus side it was a decent day for Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe, who both looked impressively sharp on the wings as the Lions won the second half 45-5 against their now familiar opponents.
Not even the mayor of Amity saw so many Sharks in such rapid succession but this was a thought-provoking sequel. For almost the first time on tour the Lions were asked some physical questions and ended up conceding five tries. What Gatland ideally wanted to see was his forwards taking a firm grip in the set scrums and driven mauls. Instead the visitors were initially sucked into a rollercoaster contest with eight tries in the first half alone.
The disruptions of recent days and the lop-sided nature of the first meeting seemed to have distracted the Lions but the Sharks also preyed hungrily on some unforced errors, starting when Elliot Daly fumbled a midfield ball to cough up a turnover opportunity which the lively Anthony Volmink gleefully accepted.
The second try was the product of a neat chip from the outside-half Lionel Cronjé to an unmarked Thaakir Abrahams but the third was another gift, Jaden Hendrikse picking off a slightly loopy pass from Davies in the direction of Biggar and outpacing the trailing cover.
The Lions were looking rather better with ball in hand, with Van der Merwe, in particular, making his presence felt. The Worcester-bound wing unselfishly created the game’s first try for his Scotland teammate Chris Harris with a powerful burst and scored his side’s third courtesy of nice build-up work from Dan Biggar and Liam Williams. In between Jamie George burrowed over from close range but there was no sense of his team dictating events. Sure enough it was the Sharks who forged ahead again through another Lions fumble, this time by Van der Merwe from a wayward Biggar pass, that allowed Abrahams to feed Volmink for his second try.
There was still one more Lions first-half try to come, Tadhg Beirne exploiting a gaping defensive hole to dive over, but the 26-26 half-time scoreline accurately reflected the contest. The Sharks had enjoyed 65% of the territory and the Lions clearly needed to get back to basics.
Maybe they would have pulled away anyway but everything changed when Hendrikse came bustling in to assist Dylan Richardson who had already tackled Williams high and dropped a sly elbow on to the Welsh full-back’s head on the floor.
Having been alerted to this crass act of foul play, the English referee, Wayne Barnes, saw no reason not to reach for his red card and, from that moment, the Sharks were doomed despite a try for the persevering Werner Kok after Conor Murray’s attempted box kick had been charged down. With the Sharks defence melting away George and Beirne both helped themselves to doubles while Daly and Watson showed their class to make it on to the scoresheet as well. Watson, again set up by Biggar’s inside ball, also showed good pace to serve Tom Curry and then struck once more for his team’s 11th try.
In theory the Lions are now due to face South Africa A in Cape Town on Wednesday followed by the Stormers on Saturday, but Gatland is still anticipating those two fixtures to be switched over. Even by normal Lions tour standards, this one is proving uniquely challenging.