So the Lions fourth fixture of the tour was up against the Sharks, from Durban, who finished sixth in this year’s Super 14. As mentioned previously the 1997 touring side came here and beat them 42-12. This year the Lions continued their winning ways and managed not only to increase the margin but recorded their biggest ever win over the Sharks franchise. They won convincingly 39-3, albeit against a much depleted side lacking many Springbok internationals.
O’Gara had his kicking boots on at the impressive 55,000-capacity ABSA Stadium scoring three conversions and adding two penalties. It took 23 minutes for the tourists to break the deadlock after controlling large swathes of the game but not able to make a break-through. Lee Mears’ (Hooker) solo effort got the ball rolling and was the first of five tries.
Leading 7-3 at half time the Lions finally decided to play some rugby after the break and the other tries came from Jamie Heaslip, Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and Luke Fitzgerald all claiming one apiece. Hook came on for O’Gara with only a couple of minutes left and converted Heaslip’s (Flanker) try, which he scored in the dying moments.
The only thing which will have concerned head coach Ian McGeechan is the number of penalties given away at the breakdown and sometimes not producing quick enough ball. Furthermore a Lions player for the second game in-a-row was sin-binned. Substitute Phil Vickery lack of discipline saw the Wasps prop-forward yellow-carded with only ten minutes on the pitch.
The Lions marched on to make it five from five. Their tour took a visit to Cape Town where they met Western Province at the Newland’s stadium, home also to the Super 14 Stormers team.
The game, widely seen as the last opportunity to impress and grab a starting place in the Test squad, attracted the biggest attendence to date on this year’s tour and many Brits/Irish were also present amongst the 36,000 spectators.
James Hook last-minute penalty kept the Lions undefeated run going as they pipped the hosts 26-23. The conditions were wet and windy and Hook did an incredible job landing his 50-metre kick inbetween the posts.
“Credit to James. As soon as you saw the contact he made, you knew he had the distance,” captain Phil Vickery commented.
Vikery was was hugely grateful of the oppotunity to captain the Lions, which suggests the players still hold the whole Lions concept in high esteem unlike what many people in some rugby circles are whispering about the Lions being a waste of time. After the game he said: “To be honest it was quite an emotional day today because ’98 was the last time I was here on the so-called ‘tour of hell”.
Stephen Jones kicked two penalties, a conversion and tries from wingers Ugo Monye and Tommy Bowe (fourth on tour) kept the Lions 18-9 up at half time but Western Province fought back to create a nail-biting end to the game. Flanker Martyn Williams scored the Lion’s third try 15 minutes into the second half and then full-back Joe Pietersen scored for W.Province levelling the score with 17 minutes left.
The Lions pack, with over 350 caps between them, were very physical and imperious in the scrums. Hook (on for a limping Rob Kearney) was awarded his last-gasp penalty, from a scrum five metres away from the South African’s try line. Lions will be happy not to have conceded a try but will undoubtedly treat this as a serious wake-up call.
As Vikery pointed out the most important is yet to come: “A week today is the reason why we are here – a Test match – and I just hope we go out and do ourselves justice.” There remains one game that seperates the men in red from facing the Springboks…
The sixth and last game before the first Test match was against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Province this afternoon.
The Lions were put under wave after wave of pressure by an inspired Kings team who were 3-0 up after two minutes. The Lions suffered two early injuries to fly-half James Hook and prop Euan Murray, who are both important players and in the running for the squad to face South Africa on saturday in Durban. Hook needed help and limped off whilst Murray injured his ankle and left the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on crutches.
The Kings were looking to be the first team to inflict defeat on the Lions and really got up in their faces with an aggressive start to the game and a relentess attitude. Riki Flutey was dramaticaly taken out, when clearing the Lions lines, by Jaco van der Westhuyzen which saw the South African veteran sin-binned.
De Wet Barry, Frikkie Welsh, Wylie Human and Ruan Vermeulen all had a go too trying batter the Lions into submission. The Lions did well to resist and got their first points from a penalty kick, which subsititute Ronan O’Gara slotted. Ugo Monye and O’Gara prevented Southern King’s Jaco Engels and Francois Hougaard, respectively, from scoring with two try-saving tackles.
O’Gara, an impressive replacement for Hook, then scored his second penalty after the break. After a kick from the Irishman England winger Ugo Monye, who had replaced Shane Williams in the starting line-up because the Welshman had suffered from a stomach bug yesterday, was able to capitalise by collecting the loose ball and scored the Lions first try. O’Gara scored the conversion as well as the conversion for the second penalty try awarded as a result of the Kings blatantly collapsing the scrum.
The 35,853 rugby fans inside the brand new stadium, re-vamped for the FIFA football World Cup 2010, were treated with some of the Tour’s most physical rugby and a real contest as Mpho Mbiyozo scored a try with seven minutes left for the hosts, who never gave up. The serious stuff starts on saturday and all the juices are flowing, the countdown has begun. Britain and Ireland have made their mark after six wins out of six, now bring on the Springboks!
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly