A second-half fightback from The British & Irish Lions fell just short at Cape Town Stadium as South Africa A handed Warren Gatland’s men a 17-13 defeat.
It looked like a Test match on paper before the game and it played out like one on the field as tries from Sbu Nkosi and skipper Lukhanyo Am put South Africa A 17-3 ahead at half-time.
But yellow cards for Faf de Klerk and Marco van Staden just before the interval gave the Lions an opening and a Wyn Jones try plus a Farrell penalty after the restart closed the deficit.
The Lions continued to pile the pressure on South Africa A, whose starting line-up had 522 caps between them, but the men in green and gold held out to claim a hard-fought win.
This was billed as an unofficial ‘fourth Test’ due to the strength of the South Africa A team, which included seven players who started the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup final success.
All the talk before the game from the Lions was about the step up in intensity they were expecting in Cape Town and it did not take long for that prediction to come to fruition.
With less than two minutes on the clock, Eben Etzebeth put a shuddering hit on Liam Williams after the full-back collected the latest De Klerk box-kick as the hosts probed early on.
South Africa A then thought they had the opening try on six minutes when Nkosi dived over in the corner, only to be denied by a brilliant last-ditch tackle from the excellent Anthony Watson.
The Lions were given another warning that this wasn’t just any Tour match from the resulting penalty, with Morné Steyn opting for the posts instead of the corner to give the hosts a 3-0 lead.
This was not the free-flowing, expansive rugby of the opening three Tour wins and that was further hammered home when Nkosi ran in the first try after Farrell’s kick was charged down.
When the Lions last visited South Africa 12 years ago, the battle up front proved decisive as the exploits of Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira in the first Test became the stuff of legend.
So there was always going to be a spotlight on scrum time in Cape Town as the Lions looked to put down a marker with just ten days to go before the opening Test of the 2021 series.
And while the Lions front row were given a thorough examination by the mighty trio of Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba and Trevor Nyakane, Warren Gatland will take encouragement from their display.
The tourists were more than a match for the hosts, with the men in red roaring in delight on 25 minutes after overpowering South Africa A in a scrum on their own five-metre line.
But while they impressed up front, the Lions did not have as much joy finding a way through the hosts’ defensive wall as the tourists repeatedly found themselves on the back foot.
The strength of South Africa A in the tackle nullified the Lions’ attack, racking up 60 tackles in the first 40 minutes and denying Gatland’s men on their own try-line just before the interval.
Steve Tandy’s defence received plenty of plaudits after the first three Tour games.
Chris Harris, in particular, had impressed in the midfield and moved to his favoured outside centre role against South Africa A, this was to be the first real test of the Lions’ rearguard action.
The first try they conceded was the result of a counter attack from a mistake – just as was the case with several of the Cell C Sharks’ scores at the weekend – as Farrell’s attempted chip was charged down.
Nkosi did not require a second invitation once he received the ball, sprinting clear of the chasing red shirts to dot down, before the home side crossed again on 33 minutes through Am.
But while it was the South Africa A captain who scored, the second try was all about Cheslin Kolbe after the dangerous winger cut through space between Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit.
All in all, the home side entered the Lions’ 22 four times in the opening half and they came away with 17 points as a result – a stat the tourists will want to work on ahead of the Tests.
It was a different story after the break, however, with Maro Itoje and Tom Curry both delivering all-action displays to help the tourists fight their way back into the contest.
The Lions were restricted to just a sole Farrell penalty in the opening half.
Having made 55 carries compared to South Africa A’s 28 and dominated possession with 65 percent, Gatland would have probably expected to have more than three points on the board.
One of the key moments came on the cusp of half-time when the hosts were reduced to 13 men as both De Klerk and Van Staden were sent to the bin as the Lions piled on the pressure.
Jones, Curry and Itoje all went close for the tourists with pick-and-goes but they could not find a way through the wall of green and gold, leaving the Lions trailing 17-3 at the interval.
But while the Lions were frustrated in the first half, they had a lot more joy after the restart as they capitalised on having two extra men by scoring their opening try of the contest.
Watson, fresh from his brace against the Sharks, sliced through South Africa A early in the second half and while he was brought down early, Jones eventually crashed over the whitewash.
The try appeared to swing the momentum in the Lions’ favour and Farrell penalised more indiscipline from South Africa A to cut the deficit to four points on 52 minutes.
Rees-Zammit came within a whisker of scoring the Lions’ second try on the hour, with his stretch for the line coming up agonisingly short, but the tourists were now in the ascendancy.
The Lions kept coming in the closing stages, with Adam Beard proving a huge nuisance at the lineout, but South Africa A managed to hold on and end the Lions’ perfect record.