“When Plan A doesn’t work, do it better.” That was the mantra from the South African Springboks as they claimed a comfortable 27-9 win over the British and Irish Lions in Cape Town to level the three-match series at 1-1.
This victory, like so many South African victories in the past, was procured through an ascendancy in the scrum and lineout, rumbling mauls, high-impact collisions and a gnawing kicking game that ground the opposing back three to the nub.
It’s not that Jacques Nienaber had torn up the playbook for the First Test or indeed for the first half on Saturday as the Lions bossed the previous 120 minutes of rugby. What changed is that his players executed the plan to perfection for the final 40 minutes.
Something slotted in place with a near audible click. Planets aligned. And the Springbok machine spluttered into life to remind the world exactly why they are the number one team in the world.
That is not to say it worked from the off. The first half, which ended a full hour after it began, was an ill-tempered, chaotic and ugly affair. It was filled with so many unsavoury moments that one needed a thorough rinse of the mouth just to wash the taste out.
During the half-time interval one of the pundits on Sky Sports said that the Cape Town Stadium was a melting pot. It wasn’t. This grand empty arena was a cracked witches’ cauldron filled with the bubbling nightmarish contents of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
It was always going to be this way, wasn’t it? Since the final whistle last week, tensions had been brewing. Journalists and broadcasters fanned flames of discontent. Officials, rather than missed tackles, poor set-pieces and wasted opportunities, were blamed and offered as reason for defeat.
Coaches and senior players on both sides hurled thinly-veiled as well as overt barbs. One - South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus - even released an hour-long video which will resonate long after Warren Gatland and his team have gone home. After so much frothing, both teams exploded into the contest eager for blood.
Less than two minutes in, Alun Wyn Jones and Eben Etzebeth were embraced in a clasp dripping with bad intentions. Duhan van der Merwe and Cheslin Kolbe were both rightly sent to the bin for reckless challenges.
The Lions wing should have been there sooner for a dangerous tackle on Pieter-Steph du Toit which resulted in his game-ending injury. His Springbok counterpart could have seen red for a heedless strike on Conor Murray in the air.
South Africa were fortunate to go into the break within touching distance. Only a bewildering Siya Kolisi tackle on Robbie Henshaw over the try line kept them in the game. That rescue act from the skipper typified the response from a side who had more than their egos bruised last week.
After the break, higher gears were found from the hosts. Handre Pollard had clearly studied Dan Biggar’s tactics and began to launch bombs from the boot every chance he got. The pressure told. The Lions back three had previously stood up to the rolling barrage but cracks emerged.
Springbok runners weren’t necessarily grasping the earth-bound balls but they were forcing knock-ons and errors that shifted the territorial advantage in their favour. The first try was ripped from a script of South African rugby cliches. A scrum penalty won by Steven Kitshoff in his 50th Test was knocked into touch.
The lineout - so calamitous in the first half but rectified by the introduction of Lood de Jager - was quickly shifted to a wedged maul that drove up the field. The defence splintered and a deft kick was collected by Makazole Mapimpi, who beat two tacklers to dot down.
The Springboks don’t let leads slip, at least not with so much momentum on their side. The Lions rallied but looked frazzled. Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes lost control of the lineout. Tom Curry was bossed at the breakdown. Chris Harris was driven back in the tackle. A second score put the game to bed.
Questions will be asked over its legitimacy, and a deeper interrogation of the refereeing will surely add to the pantomime over the next seven days, but few can argue that it wasn’t deserved.
As the game fizzled out a chasm emerged. South Africa’s substitutes, famously dubbed the ‘Bomb Squad’ at the World Cup, kept the pressure up. Beyond one ranging touch-finder from Owen Farrell, there wasn’t much to cheer from a Lions point of view.
It should be remembered that this series is taking place amidst a global pandemic. It was staged because of broadcasting rights and the promise of money. But also to inspire hope in a hopeless time.
The build-up may have been noxious and cringe-inducing, and there were periods of this match where rugby was an afterthought, but the fact that this series is going down to a decider must be celebrated.
We have a series on our hands. One that might echo through the decades. And if the Lions as a concept is losing its lustre because of cramped schedules and the encroachment of capitalism, then at least it should be entertaining.
Whatever your allegiance, there is no doubt that next week’s crescendo will be one to remember.