JOHANNESBURG - The British and Irish Lions were the favourites to comprehensively beat the Sigma Lions, and they made good on that assumption by storming to a 56-14 victory at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday night.
Despite running in eight tries to two, and enjoying an attacking gameplan, it was their defence that was most impressive. The B&I Lions attempted 141 tackles, and affected 125.
Their efforts drove the Joburg Lions back, and at one stage during the first half denied the hosts, driving forward with their pack and camping on their five minute line, an opening try.
The committed track-back by captain Stuart Hogg also stopped Sibusiso Sangweni from scoring in the second half, after the flank had intercepted a line-out and streaked towards the tryline.
They were excellent, to be sure, but as they prepare for the next four matches, and then the three Test series against the Springboks, both skipper Hogg and Man of the Match Hamish Watson agreed that there was still much work to be done.
One could argue that it was a pragmatic approach from the full-back and flank, as there was more than enough evidence on show to indicate the tourist will have a good tour, but then it is also true that there is always room for improvement. Skipper Hogg was, therefore, quite frank in his assessment of their defence.
"We want to be a formidable defensive unit and that wins you Test matches," Hogg said of the opening tour victory.
"We work incredibly hard on it, we want to be tough to beat and we want to be in positions to make dominant collisions to get some turnovers and get play on the back of it. We want to work incredibly hard for each other and make it as difficult as we possibly can.
"It gives opportunities to then play with ball in hand, which is, you know, when the likes of myself and the rest of the back-three, we come alive.
“Look," Hogg continued, "it's far from the finished article. We will continue to work, we will continue to learn, continue to get better, and we will get excited about the next few weeks."
It was a sentiment shared by Watson, who powered his way to a try and was generally a menace throughout the encounter, making 10 carries, 16 tackles, beating four defenders and winning one turnover. The B&I Lions also employed a different approach this past week to the one seen against Japan, and that Hogg revealed that was a product of the evolution within the side's ethos.
"It is another week on, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically.
"It's another week of Steve (Tandy - the defence coach) and the other coaches implementing their strategies, so it is the players getting used to that. It was a different test tonight - a big, physical team. We know how good an outfit Japan is, and we got tested in different ways today. I thought our cage defence, our defence in our own 22 during that first half, especially, was good.
"That was a big turning point in the game when we kept them out when they were attacking for a good five, 10 minute period, and that keeps us in good stead going forward."
FOUR tries for @JoshAdams951 this afternoon, you read that right 🤯— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 3, 2021
A lovely miss-pass from @elliotdaly and the winger found himself in space to cap off an astonishing display 👏#LionsRugby #CastleLionsSeries #LionsSA2021 pic.twitter.com/jQwGM7mZXQ
The Joburg Lions, meanwhile, found themselves on the opposite side of the coin. They were guilty of falling off tackles and missing one-on-one attempts. Their tackle success was only 67% and gave the visitors the all-important front-foot ball. They were also too lackadaisical in their kick-chase, giving the B&I Lions far too much space on the counter.
Joburg Lions captain Francke Horn, however, believed that the team would learn much from the experience.
"I think that there were some soft moments," admitted Horn, "like at the line-outs.
"When we were set first and we were ready, we actually had good line speed and we could stop them. There is a difference between the domestic game and the internationals and for a lot of players it was their first time testing ourselves against international players.
"I still feel there is a lot that we can work on, and a lot we can take out of it."
The B&I Lions next face the Sharks on Wednesday, also at Emirates Airline Park. It is expected that the team that plays that match will be a better representation of the Test line-up. The Joburg Lions, meanwhile, return their focus to the Currie Cup, and will also play the Sharks, away on Saturday.