The British & Irish Lions retained their 100 per cent record on Saturday with a 26-23 win over Western Province in squally Cape Town.
he local met men had predicted thunderstorms, an end to the lovely sunny weather Cape Town had been basking in all week. In the event, the storms arrived overnight on the Friday, ushering in one of those vile cold fronts that plague the Western Cape on a weekly basis during the winter.
It rained a torrent shortly before kick-off, with the wind whipping the spray in all directions as it funnelled over the mountain behind the stadium. An ugly, ugly day, leading to an ugly, ugly game, but at least the locals turned up for this one, with Newlands about three-quarters full. There were quite a few Lions fans there as well, trying to sneak in a quick match before the Test series. they'll be wondering why they bothered.
Stats were not available, but surely the first 15 minutes contained more kicks than any other match in rugby union history. There is a popular game in South Africa known as gainers, a competition between teams of one or more across a pitch where you try to out-kick your opponent down the length of a rugby field. For the opening quarter of an hour, Rob Kearney and Joe Pietersen played exactly that.
Pietersen probably shaded the duel by a whisker, but the transgressions of his team-mates with their positioning meant that at the end of that period, the Lions led two penalties to one, courtesy of Stephen Jones out-goaling Willem de Waal - also no stranger to territorial kicking for the sake of it.
Finally the Lions went through a few phases shortly after Jones' second, but it was ineffective stuff, yielding little more than three yards of gain followed by a Province penalty. De Waal booted it to touch, then from the line-out, booted a smart drop goal to level things.
The locals benefitted from an appalling decision by Mark Lawrence after 26 minutes, when Tonderai Chavhanga was clearly holding onto the ball on the ground under pressure from Ugo Monye but the Lions was penalised for going off his feet.
De Waal opted for a line-out in the corner, but after a succession of drives the home attack got cold feet and opted to flip it back to Joe Pietersen for another drop goal.
Finally, after a half hour that left the soul as cold as the icy feet and hands in the north-westerly wind, the Lions produced a couple of moments of quality that set them apart.
First a handling movement that spanned half the pitch, sparked by Andy Powell and involving Harry Ellis, Martyn Williams, Stephen Jones and Keith Earls, was finished off by Tommy Bowe with a jink, a burst and a swivel over the line.
Then Bowe came off his wing - not for the first time this tour - and found a gap through the middle, finishing that off with a flip pass out of the tackle to Monye in the corner.
Jones converted the second kick for an 18-9 lead, but De Waal reduced the arrears to six with his second penalty just after the half-time hooter.
The Lions came out with far more intent in the second half, with Ellis making inroads around the fringes and creating more space for Jones to set things going. There was less kicking and more construction with the wealth of possession kicked to them from Provincial boots.
A crossfield kick to Bowe, followed by a break from Jones at the next phase, gave good attacking position for the Lions, seven precise phases of driving later Williams peeled of the back of a ruck and crashed over for the Lions' third.
Again, a penalty that seemed less real-time deed and more indulgence of Luke Watson's plaintive bleating brought Province back into affairs at 18-23, but there was nothing for the Lions to moan about when Joe Pietersen slid into the corner after 63 minutes, exploiting the gap left by Bowe charging up in defence. De Waal's conversion was an atom to the right, leaving it handily poised at 23-apiece.
Province kicked and kicked and kicked, praying for that crucial error while all the time giving their guests a 70m target to run at rather than a 20m one. The Lions simply could not find the momentum to get forward enough, nor a gap in the chasing blue and white shirts to get through.
But they got their pivotal moment, when JD Moller brought down a scrum and James Hook stepped up to land a penalty from 40m. An ugly way to win, but when the opposition presents itself so, what else are you supposed to do. This was a tough test for the Lions, one they have once more passed on another step to a series that is building superbly.
Man of the match: The one player who stood out for not using the boot too much and presenting perpetual class was Tommy Bowe, while mixing the ugly stuff with the best of them were Phil Vickery and Nathan Hines, with a phenomenal work-rate.
For Western Province:
Pens: De Waal 4
Drop goals: de Waal, Pietersen
For the Lions:
Tries: Bowe, Monye, Williams
Pens: Jones 2, Hook
Western Province: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Tonderai Chavhanga, 13 Morgan Newman, 12 Peter Grant, 11 Gcobani Bobo, 10 Willem De Waal, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Luke Watson (c), 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Pieter Louw, 5 Anton Van Zyl, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Wicus Blaauw.
Replacements: 16 Hanyani Shimange, 17 JD Moller, 18 De Kock Steenkamp, 19 Zandre Jordaan, 20 Conrad Hoffmann, 21 JJ Engelbrecht, 22 Gio Aplon.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Phil Vickery (capt), 2 Mathew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Euan Murray, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Tom Croft, 20 Mike Blair, 21 James Hook, 22 Gordan D'Arcy.
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Assistant referee: Wayne Barnes (England), Cobus Wessels
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman
Assessor: Dennis Immelman
Timekeeper: Paul Ackermann
By Danny Stephens in Cape Town