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Maro Itoje has recent experience of the claustrophobic squeeze that South Africa’s game plan exerts, so his words at the final whistle of the British and Irish Lions’ victory in Cape Town on Saturday held weight.
“We’ve been behind against the Springboks before,” he told Schalk Brits for Channel 4’s highlights programme.
“One thing you can’t do is crumble or be too desperate. I think we had to back ourselves, be a bit more patient and tidy up our discipline. Luckily, we saw it through.”
While clawing themselves back from a 12-3 half-time deficit, the Lions were certainly more astute and composed than England had been in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019. However, they needed a 90-second defensive stand to finish the job.
Capping off a fine individual performance, Itoje was right at the heart of a passage that forced South Africa 15 metres back up-field and epitomised many tactical values of this Lions squad.
Two-man tackles to win the gain-line
Six of the seven restarts that South Africa took over the first Test were caught by either Itoje or Jack Conan. This is how the Lions lined up to receive Springboks’ restarts while right-footed Handré Pollard was on the field:
Itoje and Conan switched sides when the left-footed Elton Jantjies replaced Pollard at fly-half. However, after Owen Farrell’s 79th penalty had opened up a 22-17 advantage for the Lions, South Africa attempted something different.
Elton Jantjies kicks straight down the middle of the field towards Elliot Daly, with Damian Willemse leading the chase:
Willemse challenges Daly in the air…
…before regathering the loose ball brilliantly:
Itoje begins on the far side of the breakdown as scrum-half Herschel Jantjies prepares to locate first-receiver Damian de Allende:
Lions defence coach Steve Tandy has obviously asked his players to work together in contact and hold up carriers where possible.
Here, Mako Vunipola and Ken Owens buy time for the tourists by lifting De Allende:
When South Africa probe the far side of the ruck, Itoje lines up Steven Kitshoff and launches into the loosehead prop. Kyle Sinckler shunts into the tackle-area too, giving the Lions a win of around five metres:
This climax showcased subtle tricks as well.
As Herschel Jantjies looks towards South Africa skipper Siya Kolisi, you can see Itoje picking himself up and driving through the ruck:
That action appears to cramp the scrum-half and causes a wobbly pass:
Kolisi does gather and make ground, but the Springboks lose momentum very quickly. You can see Itoje backpedalling here, readjusting his scrum-cap as he does so.
Note that Tadhg Beirne, who had replaced Courtney Lawes around five minutes earlier, pushes Conan away from the ruck to fill the defensive line towards the far touchline. This is important:
Itoje reaches the offside line and watches the ball, loitering with intent behind the back foot – or close enough to appease the assistant referees and Nic Berry – until the ball is out. Meanwhile, just as Herschel Jantjies is eying up South Africa’s next carrier, Beirne counter-rucks:
This time, wary of throwing another poor pass, Herschel Jantjies holds on to the ball and readjusts his hands before feeding Lood de Jager.
This gives Itoje a precious split-second to shut down the space in front of De Jager. Another robust tackle brings a fumble and Elton Jantjies must mop up:
Some four months after his tough afternoon in Cardiff, Itoje spent Saturday on the right side of the officials and did not concede a single penalty without compromising on his trademark disruption. Having pressed up beyond the breakdown, Conan fells Willemse:
For the next phase, as South Africa continue to zig-zag, the defensive line is stacked.
The Lions are in a 13-2 formation with Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe, who is out of shot, patrolling the back-field:
Owens and Itoje push up to make a double-hit on Kitshoff, who is bolstered by the latch of De Jager. Watch Farrell sprinting behind his forwards:
Itoje peels himself away from the tackle-area to ensure that the Lions keep 14 men on their feet. Only Owens remains on the floor:
With Farrell pushing up to discourage a pass to De Allende Elton Jantjies darts himself. He beats Sinckler, but Vunipola completes the tackle:
Now follow the next phase. Owens and Hamish Watson combine to stop De Jager dead. Meanwhile, Farrell sprints around towards the near touchline to fill in.
Itoje jogs over to the ruck. For a moment, it looks as though he might jackal. Watch how both Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe respond to this by joining the breakdown:
With Hamish Watson backing away from the tackle-area, this means the Lions have one defender – Owens again – in the ruck. South Africa have four men in there:
Conan and Beirne then down Pieter-Steph du Toit. As Farrell calls for more cover, with Sinckler responding…
…watch Itoje. He tracks Beirne and adds his weight to the jackal attempt. Berry appears to lift his whistle towards his lips, before thinking against awarding a penalty to the Lions.
South Africa head to their left and De Allende pops up once more, only to be dragged down by a combination of Daly, Farrell, Sinckler and Hamish Watson:
Truly, this was a collective effort.
The Lions were loud throughout this period. Here, Anthony Watson alerts Farrell…
…who calls Itoje underneath the ruck to cover the short side. Herschel Jantjies is a dangerous sniper:
As it happens, though, South Africa move the ball in-field. Malherbe is the first-receiver:
Conan and Beirne cut down the tighthead prop. Conan does not even fall to the grass and watch how quickly Beirne bounces to his feet:
The clock is now in the red to signal that 80 minutes is up. Du Toit carries…
…but is met hard by Sinckler and Vunipola. Beirne approaches the pile-up…
…and leans over towards the ball. Berry calls him out, but the job is done and the Springboks’ ruck-speed has been slowed:
Hitting the target
Itoje has time to line up South Africa’s next runner, Rynhardt Elstadt. He closes the space once more, scooping his arms under the ball before appearing to absorb Elstadt’s weight and then ripping down to steal possession for the Lions. It is a very skilful piece of play:
There is an argument that Elstadt’s knee had touched the turf prior to him losing the ball…
…but Berry is happy:
Beirne dives on the loose ball and Alun Wyn Jones, Itoje’s second-row partner, completes his own excellent display by standing over it.
While undoubtedly anxious for their supporters, the Lions appeared to stay calm and in control during this dramatic finish. They will have to improve, but that bodes well for their hopes of winning the series next weekend.
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