We take a look at the best ever games from years gone by and today head back to 2009 where South Africa defeated the Lions in one of the great Test matches.
Lead-up to the fixture
Facing the defending the world champions, who had retained the core of the squad which won the title in 2007, few gave the British and Irish Lions a chance going into the series, but there was a quiet confidence in their camp.
The build up, despite not facing particularly strong South African provincial sides, appeared excellent, while established combinations had been made. There was a belief within the tourists’ camp but, when it came to the opening Test in Durban, they were stunned by the physicality of the hosts.
Perhaps hampered by a lack of intensity in the earlier fixtures or just wrong in their own selections, the Springboks dominated the forward confrontations. Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira gave tighthead Phil Vickery a torrid time in the scrum – even though there were doubts about his legality in the set-piece – and the maul was typically potent.
As a result, the Lions failed to cope and the home side moved into a comfortable 26-7 buffer after 46 minutes. The game looked over at that point, but a couple of changes up front had the desired effect for the visitors.
Lee Mears and Vickery had been selected for their mobility in the loose as they attempted to manoeuvre the bigger South Africans around the field, but it backfired spectacularly. However, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones came on to rectify those problems and two quickfire tries got the Lions back into the contest.
It was too little, too late for Ian McGeechan’s team, though, and it left the tourists with it all to do in the second Test. The Springboks stuck with the formula which proved so successful in Durban, but Rees, Jones and Simon Shaw came into the XV to bolster the Lions’ pack. They formed a stronger unit and, as a result, one of the great games in rugby history took place in Pretoria.
Memorable players involved
The match was not a minute old when the first significant event took place. Ian McGeechan’s charges had gone into the second Test determined not to be overawed physically like they were in the opening encounter.
They selected a bigger pack with the intent of stamping their authority on the contest early on. That could have seen them play too close to the edge but instead it was the Springboks, and specifically Schalk Burger, who lost their heads.
In the early exchanges, Burger and Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald were at the side of the ruck when the flanker decided to make contact with the eye area of the back three player. It should have seen the back-rower sent-off – and he certainly would have been now – but he somehow escaped with a yellow card.
The Lions took advantage of the extra man to go 10-0 in front, but no doubt that error from the officials played a huge part in the end result. Oddly, the mistake contributed to the contest becoming one of the great Test matches – the tourists, given their quality, would have won reasonably comfortably otherwise – and no doubt South Africa were thankful.
Peter de Villiers’ men were under pressure, with second-row Simon Shaw at the age of 35 one of those to produce an outstanding performance, but his charges showed their championship qualities. On the Highveld, the visitors gradually faded and Bryan Habana’s well-worked try brought the hosts back into the contest.
It was also a brutal encounter. There were injuries aplenty but the most significant were to centre partnership Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll. Those two dovetailed superbly for the Lions but their exits within two minutes of each other forced a significant reshuffle.
One of the players to come on was fly-half Ronan O’Gara and his contribution would define the latter exchanges. Firstly, Jaque Fourie ran over the playmaker to touch down in the corner and take the Springboks ahead, before there was an even bigger error in the final minute, which led to the winning score from Morne Steyn.
The sensational finish to the 2nd test between the Boks & the Lions in 2009 pic.twitter.com/KszO8IoS18
— Derek Alberts (@derekalberts1) June 5, 2017
Why it will live long in the memory
Four things contribute to memorable games: Controversy, unrelenting physicality, outstanding skills and tries, and a last minute victory. This had all those as South Africa claimed a 28-25 triumph at Ellis Park to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
Burger’s gouge on Fitzgerald provided the initial talking point while the brutality of the contest, which saw several players go off, only added to the drama. In fact, Dr James Robson, the Lions medic, stated that he had never seen such an injury toll in a match before.
Meanwhile, the skill level was also fantastic. It was simply two world-class sides playing at the peak of the game, contributing in four expertly worked tries. That, among all the talking points, should not be forgotten.
However, in such tight matches, there often has to be a scapegoat and O’Gara was the player that was castigated following the encounter. On for the injured Roberts, his poor tackle led to Fourie’s try before the Ireland legend made a huge mistake in the final minute.
Stephen Jones, who had a magnificent game, had levelled matters with a penalty late on, but the win was still in the offing. With the tension palpable, a bout of kick-tennis ensued, with O’Gara collecting the ball inside his own 22.
In hindsight, the Irishman should have gone for touch but, in attempting to get the ball back for his side, he went for an ‘up and under’ only to clatter scrum-half Fourie du Preez in the air, leading to a crucial penalty for the South Africans.
It turned out to be a massive error. The infringement may have taken place over 50 metres out from his own try-line but, with it centre of the field and at altitude, it was a very gettable kick for someone of the ability of Morne Steyn, who made no mistake.
The Springboks’ pain of 1997 had duly been erased as the class of 2009 etched their names into the history books with this victory.