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The rhythms of a three-match Test series are rare and compelling. Look away for a second or two and you may miss a seemingly innocuous incident that swings momentum significantly.
So far this summer, both meetings between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions have turned in remarkably similar fashion during the moments following half-time.
Just as Warren Gatland’s side had sparked their own comeback from 12-3 behind the previous weekend, the Springboks asserted control in an authoritative period of four minutes that showcased their most effective attributes.
Down 9-6, they underlined their world champion pedigree and laid the foundations for a dominant second period.
Clean catch, perfect kick
We begin from Dan Biggar’s restart, which is aimed between two of South Africa’s two-man lifting pods – one comprising Kwagga Smith and Bongi Mbonambi, the other made up of Frans Malherbe and Franco Mostert.
Those four forwards react while the ball is in the air. Malherbe, a lifter, and Mostert, a jumper, move towards where the ball is about to land. Meanwhile, Mbonambi leaves Smith, his jumper, and supports Mostert:
The result is a clean catch from Mostert, with no danger of the Lions competing in the air:
By a quirk of the law book, if a maul forms following a kick in open play, the side that has caught the ball will have the scrum put-in. However, a restart is not classed as a kick in open play, so holding up a catcher will earn the defence a scrum put-in. We saw this during the Six Nations when Ireland beat England.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, Courtney Lawes and Alun Wyn Jones attempt to do this to Mostert. However, the springboks lock is too sharp. He drops his right knee to the floor, thus ending the maul and forming a tackle:
Ben O’Keeffe sees this, and calls the Lions defenders away:
From here, with Smith blocking off a charge-down attempt from Lawes, Faf de Klerk hoists a box-kick. Typically, South Africa’s chase is configured well.
Wing Cheslin Kolbe leads it, with forwards Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi trailing closely. In those three, South Africa have an athletic jumper, a heavy-hitting tackler and a breakdown scavenger. The bruising Mbonambi is not far behind.
Three Lions backs on the near side of the breakdown, Conor Murray, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe, do their best to block off Kolbe:
This looks very similar to the landscape at the start of the South Africa A game, when Etzebeth blindsided Liam Williams:
Here, there is a different issue. South Africa’s chasers swarm through as Stuart Hogg comes forward…
…and Kolbe manages to jump against the Lions full-back, who spills. Note that the Springboks even pressurise Van der Merwe after the drop:
This facet of their game was just too much for the Lions.
Scrum and maul muscle
The ensuing scrum requires a re-set. According to O’Keeffe, there is an issue – probably a slip – for both South Africa loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff and Lions tighthead Tadhg Furlong:
However, the Lions are penalised at the next attempt. An aerial view shows sand shoot backwards as Furlong loses his footing on the turf:
O’Keeffe also highlighted Furlong losing his bind, which this side-on view illustrates:
South Africa hit touch. Largely because of the Lions’ in-field kicking, they were only afforded four lineouts in the first Test. They enjoyed 12 in the second.
Although both Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje made first-half steals, it proved a pivotal platform. Here, the Springboks deploy a six-man set-up. Etzebeth and Mostert are the key men, opposite the Lions engine room of Jones, Itoje and Lawes:
Some subtle movement over the ground helps Etzebeth to claim Mbonambi’s throw. He turns towards Mostert, looking as though he might lift his fellow lock. Jasper Wiese accentuates the deception with another fake lift from the rear. Watch how Itoje reacts to this, using his right hand to beckon Jones back to lift him.
This choreography creates space at the front because Jones is not in a position to jump. The starting position of Frans Malherbe, the meaty Springboks tighthead, is important as well:
Watch how Etzebeth spins back again before being lifted by Kitshoff and Mostert. Malherbe and Kolisi are quickly around him to establish the maul:
Indeed, as Mbonambi controls the ball at the back of the phalanx, props Kitshoff and Malherbe are chief protagonists in a powerful drive that splinters the Lions and eats up about 10 metres:
Eventually, Mbonambi breaks away. Mako Vunipola and Cowan-Dickie are on hand…
…but watch the committed support play of De Klerk. With the help of Smith, he shoots into the breakdown to mitigate the jackalling threat of Cowan-Dickie:
South Africa’s scrum-half is fearfully wholehearted but, crucially, sharp enough to identify when he must undertake more unconventional tasks for the team.
Another kicking contest, and feasting off ‘crumbs’
Ruck-speed is not particularly important at this stage and South Africa wait until De Klerk has untangled himself.
There is a moment of confusion, but inside centre Damian de Allende mops up and carries. Among the Lions defenders, Anthony Watson and Hogg are the men to watch. This is where the Springboks will target, with Makazole Mapimpi and Willie le Roux already lurking:
On the next phase, Mostert and Etzebeth generate impetus, the former shoving the latter into contact and then securing possession at the ruck:
Handré Pollard then goes to the sky:
Mapimpi and Le Roux are the primary chasers with Lukhanyo Am holding back slightly. Watson has had to push flat, which isolates Hogg in the back-field. Meanwhile, the understated De Allende tracks across into the space vacated by Mapimpi:
Le Roux beats Hogg in a one-on-one contest, tapping the ball back. Duhan van der Merwe has swung all the way around from the blindside wing in a bid to help Hogg, but De Allende secures possession for South Africa:
In Australian Rules Football, ‘crumbs’ is a term to describe balls that spill loose from a kicking contest. In rugby union, these have become so valuable – and South Africa are masters of the aerial game.
To rewind slightly, Le Roux’s jump is excellent. Whereas Hogg holds his arms in a traditional basket shape, South Africa’s full-back holds his arms over his head. This is how he pats Pollard’s up-and-under back towards his teammates:
Then, at the next ruck, watch how Le Roux is alert to the next phase. He looks for Pollard and starts sprinting in the direction of his fly-half:
Eventually, Le Roux reaches the second-receiver position from which he so often helps South Africa to impart width. This next screenshot hopefully demonstrates his off-the-ball running. There are a lot of other things going on.
De Klerk has already fed Pollard. Kolisi is out wide with Kolbe, who is calling for the ball now Le Roux is in place. The Lions are struggling to reorganise. Hogg, Harris and Biggar rush to join Murray on this near side. Although a mobile tight-five forward, Furlong is somewhat exposed in the outside centre channel:
Le Roux takes a pass from Pollard and feeds Kolisi. Watch Smith:
Although Harris and Tom Curry combine to down Kolisi and compete for the ball, Smith steams in…
…and lifts the Lions away in an excellent clear-out. Hogg is directly behind the ruck at this point…
…and the Springboks move the ball back towards the far touchline. With Smith and Kolisi caught up in the ruck, two midfield pods of three forwards have formed in front of Pollard.
Kitshoff is at the point of the first, flanked by Mbonambi and Malherbe. Beyond that are Mostert and Etzebeth, standing either side of Wiese. Hogg begins covering across again, but Mapimpi is already calling for the ball:
From there, the last phase is characterised by a delicious kick-pass from Pollard that outflanks the Lions:
This camera angle illustrates how Pollard locates the space beyond Watson, and how Mapimpi surges to the try-line after stepping off his left foot:
It is an exceptional finish to a fine team try that capped off sour minutes of archetypal Springboks play and ignited a defiant, stirring comeback.
The Lions did respond immediately, earning a penalty that Biggar dragged wide. But they faded thereafter, failing to deal with a kicking barrage and powerless to prevent Lood de Jager running the lineout exchanges.
We will return for a decider, then. No doubt further twists and turns await.