By Conor O'Shea
Thank goodness for that. For numerous reasons, 20 minutes into this match we needed the Free State Cheetahs to stand up and be counted. Firstly a repeat of the 74 – 10 rout of the Golden Lions and the British & Irish Lions and the supporters would begin to wonder if there was to be any tests ahead outside of the Test matches.
Was South African rugby really as strong in the provinces as it was cracked up to be, did they have players coming out from under stones to compete at the highest level?
All these questions were bound to be asked but now they need not be. Bloemfontein and the Free State are a proud rugby heartland and Naka Drotske and his team really came through and in the end were unlucky not to win.
Massive respect must go to Paul O’Connell for his steal of the ball and earning of the penalty in that last play of the game. There must have been a huge temptation to let the Cheetahs have the ball and not risk giving the penalty away at the breakdown, which you see so often, but that is why O’Connell is O’Connell.
He took responsibility as only leaders do, but it was also one of the few breakdowns the Lions won on the day!!
Who would have thought this game was going to go this way after Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls had scored early tries and James Hook converted both and tacked on two penalties for 20-0 after 20 minutes.
As an aside, you had to be delighted for Earls after his difficulties the previous week and that was mirrored by the reaction of the whole squad in the stand.
But how could the game have changed so dramatically after that to leave the Lions just hanging on?
The answer for me lies in three areas. Firstly, for the second Saturday running, there were far too many errors, both forced – credit to the Cheetahs – but more worryingly for the Lions, unforced errors.
Secondly, they picked a backline high on youth and talent but lacking a physical presence to really attract the attention of the Cheetahs and I was surprised not to see Gordon D’Arcy introduced earlier.
Finally, and the biggest concern for the Lions on the day, was the breakdown where the Cheethas - through Broussow and then Floors when he came on - destroyed the Lions and the lack of a David Wallace or Martyn Williams was just enormous.
So are all three areas easily addressed?
Well the answer is yes and the Test side that will be selected have none of these issues. The only thing is the Test side will be up against a mighty Boks team and they better not get any injuries to the likes of O’Driscoll.
In terms of the errors the likely Test side has too much experience to make the errors that this side made, the backline will include BOD along with Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe and with Mike Phillips at 9 – oh how they must yearn for Tomás O’Leary.
Finally, the Test side will potentially have both Wallace and Martyn Williams in the match day 22 and with that auxiliary flanker in the centre that is Brian O’Driscoll there should be no worries.
So what were the positives from the Cheetahs game other than the obvious of winning? Well, the tight five were excellent and the scrum, albeit against a notoriously weak scrum, and they dominated throughout.
They should have laid the platform for an emphatic win that never came. That, though, was about that and the credit for the game should go to the Cheetahs who battled bravely and proudly and should have claimed a historic scalp at the end as the drop goal sailed wide.
The Lions got the mix in the back row wrong with Andy Powell and Joe Worsley difficult to pair together and their midfield was too light for South African soils.
Meanwhile, out wide Shane Williams is really losing ground on the race for the left wing berth. As of now, Ugo Moyne is in pole position but I really hope that Luke Fitzgerald gets a chance to stake a claim for that position.
And has Rob Kearney suddenly got a glimmer of hope? Lee Byrne made one really bad error at the end of the game when he dropped an easy catch that could have led to a score that would have cost the Lions the game.
It is only one mistake from the full-back but a drop like that for a full-back can be like missing a short putt for a golfer, you just don’t know how it will affect his mind.
Anyway, it just offers a chance for Rob Kearney. Bottom line is they won.
As an aside, I really hope we see the crowds beginning to turn up for the non-Test matches, it is the Lions after all and they shouldn’t be playing in front of half full stadiums.
Don’t expect that for the games this week in Durban and Capetown, things are building up nicely.