Fraser Brown: Why Lions win was a monumental moment in the short history of Scottish pro rugby
With four Scots starting a Lions Test match for the first time in 28 years, and a fifth being introduced off the bench, the opening Test against South Africa was a hugely significant landmark in Scottish rugby history and a monumental moment in the short history of the professional game north of the border.
It’s difficult to understand why and even more difficult to explain, but momentum in sport exists and it can have a huge impact, so the Lions’ 22-17 victory is massive in the context of a three-Test series. If South Africa had managed to scramble anything in the dying moments of the first Test to claim victory, the second Test next Saturday would have been a very different beast for the Lions. Heading into the second Test one-nil down against a Bokke team who were a long way short of the team who dismantled England in Tokyo in the World Cup final two years ago and who have had no real game and very little training time together since, would have been a tough ask.
Now they can look forward to next weekend knowing that while they have lots to improve on they have that vital 1-0 lead and will face a South Africa team wounded, but who will have to take a few more risks to win the next two Tests.
I can’t see there being many changes, good news for the Scottish boys.
Rory Sutherland might make way for Wyn Jones if the Wales prop recovers from a shoulder injury. I don’t think that’s a reflection on Rory’s performance, I just think the coaches will want to give Wyn the opportunity after initially selecting him as their number one loosehead.
For me, Ali Price has to start again. He’s been the best nine on tour and he marshalled the game. A big part of the win was the Lions resurgence after half-time and Ali and Dan Biggar controlled that.
Duhan van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg didn’t put a foot wrong. They did everything that was asked of them and I’d expect them to retain their places.
The one area which I felt didn’t really function at the weekend was the back row which might open up opportunities for others, particular Hamish Watson. Tom Curry is an exceptional player, one of the best in the world on his day, but I felt on Saturday he was some way short of the high standards he sets for himself and with the quality of Watson and Josh Navidi waiting in the wings it may be an area the Lions coaches look at changing.
It was a huge day for Stuart because he has been a Test Lion in waiting for so long.
He will be delighted with the win but I would imagine he will be feeling slightly frustrated that he didn’t get much ball in attack. You hoped that there would be the chance for the Lions to cut loose but it never really happened.
There were a couple of opportunities down the left-hand side when there was a two-on-two and Hoggy cut back inside but he was pretty well marshalled.
In other aspects, I thought he dealt pretty well with the South African aerial bombardment - the whole back three did.
Defensively he didn’t have too much to do as the South African attack was pretty blunt but he was where he needed to be.
In the first quarter I think all the back three were a little guilty of leaving a bit too much space in behind, particularly on turnover ball and South Africa found the space pretty well.
But as the game went on, and South Africa tired, I thought Hoggy marshalled the back three well. It wasn’t spectacular but he did exactly what was needed of him.
I messaged him beforehand to wish him well. It’s taken him three tours to get his first Test start and this would have been special for him and his whole family, even more so because he got to do it with Rory, one of his oldest friends.
Duhan van der Merwe
Another big day for Duhan on what has been an incredible rise on the world stage over the last year and I thought he played really well. There was a lot of criticism this week of Duhan’s selection from some parts of the media, particularly in the south-west. I think a lot of that was focused on his defensive abilities and how he would cope under the high ball.
Like Stuart, he didn’t get many attacking opportunities and I was quite surprised the Lions didn’t use their set-piece to try to get Duhan more into the game.
But I thought his high ball work was superb. He took one really early in the game and that set the tone for both Duhan and the Lions.
His chase work off Ali Price’s box kicking was brilliant. A lot of Wales’ success under Warren Gatland was built around defence and their kick-chase game and Duhan is superb at this. He was hitting guys man and ball, he was counter-rucking, putting South Africa under lots of pressure.
Defensively, he maybe had a bit of an easy ride because South Africa didn’t attack much but you can’t criticise Duhan for that. You can only play what is in front of you.
I thought Ali was superb. He didn’t have a lot of quick ball to attack from but he marshalled the game well. He tried to inject pace when he could, his service to Biggar was accurate and his box-kicking was right on the money.
Ironically, just about his only mistake was an over-hit box kick at the start of the second half which ended up finding grass in the back field and led to the Lions retaining possession, setting the tone for the remainder of the game. It was the catalyst for the Lions’ much improved second-half performance.
I thought Ali defended well. There was an over-read by him and Anthony Watson leading to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s line break but other than that he defended well. His defence has been brilliant for Scotland and the Lions since Steve Tandy came in.
Conor Murray came on for Ali late on but you wouldn’t have been able to tell there had been a change at nine and that’s a compliment to both players. Murray is so good at controlling games and Ali did it as well, if not better, for the first 65 minutes.
It would have been difficult for Suzza because all week he’d have been preparing to start on the bench and be the impact player. I thought he dealt really well with being thrust into the starting XV so late after the injury to Jones.
The set-piece battle was always going to be huge and the front row South Africa selected was interesting because I didn’t think that was their best scrummaging trio.
I don’t think Trevor Nyakane has scrummaged well in the build-up to this Test, he has been pretty messy and ill-disciplined, and I think it was always going to be a difficult day for whichever loosehead started.
It was never going to be a game of perfectly solid scrums but I thought Suz did well. He was very aggressive and went about his business around the park well.
He had a solid if not spectacular game and it’s certainly a good base to build on.
I think everyone had their hearts in the mouth after his tackle on Willie le Roux. He probably got away with one there because I think by the letter of the law it’s a yellow card. I think he was helped by the fact that referee Nic Berry made his decision so quickly and it was difficult for the TMO to interject.
Hamish had been sitting on the bench for 60 minutes, he was pumped up and he wanted to make an impact. He’s a brilliant kick-chaser and there are not many back-rowers around who are better at it, hitting man and ball and making that first ruck an absolute nightmare for the receiving team.
He just got it slightly wrong with le Roux but that happens to us all.
Other than that, he put in a good shift off the bench, worked hard and made a nuisance of himself. He maybe didn’t get the ball-carrying space he wanted but that was never going to happen against the Springboks. But he certainly didn’t look out of place, carried physically and went about his work well.
Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy
The attack and defence coaches will be relatively pleased at how the game plan was executed, especially in the second half. I think Gregor will be frustrated because he would want a bit more tempo in the attack. He knows that if the Lions can win a couple more of those gainline collisions and generate more tempo at the ruck then they’ll be able to really put South Africa under pressure.
The Boks defend so aggressively but are very narrow and the Lions know if they can get outside that blitz defence, they will get the likes of Anthony Watson, Hoggy and Duhan on the ball and get them into the wide channels where there will be more space, more chances of one-on-ones and better offloading opportunities. On the few occasions they found tempo, South Africa’s discipline deserted them, ultimately handing the Lions the foothold they needed in the second half.
For Steve Tandy, I’m sure he’d be happy with more of the same next week. If South Africa play the same type of game then the Lions will be more than happy to soak it up. On the few occasions that the Boks got into the opposing 22, the Lions looked pretty comfortable. In fact they looked dominant, no more so than the last few minutes when the Lions defensive line bulldozed South Africa from close to the Lionstry line all the way back to the halfway line.