South Africa A landed a blow for the Springboks when they powered their way to a 17-13 victory over the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday night. As the Test series looms, Lions coach Warren Gatland and his charges will have to revise their perceptions about the strength and threat that the home team presents.

The Boks have suffered a series of setbacks in the lead-up to this tour. Due to the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa, the world champions missed the entire 2020 Test season and came into 2021 cold. When their second warm-up Test against Georgia was cancelled last week, many believed that they would head into the games against the Lions severely undercooked.

In the wake of that cancelled fixture, Rassie Erasmus – the director of rugby standing in for head coach Jacques Nienaber – opted to field the strongest possible team in the guise of South Africa A. The team that played on Wednesday boasted the likes of Cheslin Kolbe as well as six other 2019 World Cup final starters. That said, the team also included a number of international rookies and fringe players due to the fact that so many of the frontrunners – including captain Siya Kolisi – were unavailable due to Covid-19 enforced isolation or injury.

It’s been a challenging fortnight for both sets of teams, and indeed for the country of South Africa as a whole. The decision to proceed with the fixtures in Gauteng – the epicentre of South African’s third wave of Covid-19 infections – was exposed as folly when a large group of Lions players and coaches was forced to isolate. Following 12 positive PCR tests, the entire Springbok contingent was sent into quarantine for six days.

While the Boks resumed training upon arrival in Cape Town on Sunday, Kolisi, Nienaber and several other first-choice players were forced to remain in Johannesburg to complete a mandatory 10-day isolation. Even now, it’s uncertain whether all these players will be available for the first Test.

Over the weekend, a series of riots broke out in the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces as the supporters of former president Jacob Zuma responded to his recent incarceration. State president Cyril President deployed 2,500 soldiers in an attempt to halt the violence, looting and damage to property.

It’s for these reasons that the Lions as well as the Boks will be relieved to be in Cape Town. For now, the Mother City remains relatively untouched by the chaos, and the players will have a greater opportunity to focus on rugby.

Indeed, it comes as no surprise to hear that all of the remaining tour matches – including the last two Tests, which were initially scheduled to be played in Johannesburg – will be staged here in the Western Cape.

Hopefully the worst is behind the Lions and the Boks and this tour can finally move forward. The tour certainly received a boost ahead of Wednesday’s clash when Erasmus and Gatland selected two powerful lineups. The game itself, dubbed by local and travelling media alike as “the unofficial fourth Test”, lived up to its billing and then some.

Most would have expected the Lions to run away with the result. Instead, it was the South Africa A team that dominated the collisions and won the kicking and aerial battles. The offensive-defence strategy that proved so effective at the 2019 World Cup was expertly implemented.

Josh Adams withdrew shortly before kickoff after it was confirmed that his wife was going into labour. Liam Williams – Adams’ replacement in the back-three – took a knock and was forced to retire before the end of the first half.

To say that these disruptions were directly responsible for the Lions’ limp showing in the opening 40 minutes, however, would be wide of the mark.

The Lions struggled to launch from the lineout and conceded soft penalties and turnovers whenever they were in sight of the South African tryline. The hosts, by contrast, took a couple of half-chances to establish a commanding lead.

The first try was a direct result of defensive pressure. South Africa A charged down a laborious kick attempt, swooped on the loose ball and transferred it to S’bu Nkosi – who proceeded to race all of 70 metres to score.

The second try bore a striking similarity to the one scored by Kolbe in the 2019 World Cup final. A poor kick by the Lions was gobbled up by the winger, who danced his way down the touchline before stepping inside.

While the Lions did enough to stop Kolbe from accelerating away, they could not prevent him from offloading to his captain Lukhanyo Am. Morné’ Steyn’s conversion boosted the lead to 17-3 after 33 minutes.

The Lions rallied towards the end of the stanza, but could not breach the South African defence. The hosts were guilty of poor discipline, though, and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and flank Marco van Staden were both shown yellow cards within the space of a minute.

The Lions made their two-man advantage count. By the 51st minute, they had narrowed the deficit to four points after Wyn Jones crashed over the tryline and Farrell nailed a conversion as well as a penalty.

Louis Reez-Zammit came within a few centimetres of scoring for the visitors eight minutes later,. A score at that stage may have provided the Lions with the chance to go ahead for the first time in the game. Instead, the officials ruled a double-movement, and a relieving penalty was awarded to South Africa A.

The Lions had an opportunity to snatch victory at the death, but lost the ball forward at a crucial juncture. While the South Africans did enough to win – just – it must be said that their second-half performance was nowhere near as fierce and clinical as what they produced in the first.

The Lions have declined a request from Erasmus to play another fixture against the South Africa A side on Saturday. Gatland’s charges will play against the Stormers – who will be missing a large number of players, who are with the Boks.

Due to the cancellation of the second Test against Georgia, the Boks hoped to play another match before the Test series commences on 24 July. With the Lions turning down their invitation, they may well face the Bulls in a warm-up game at Cape Town Stadium this weekend.

Before the match on Wednesday, the Lions appeared to be the better placed of the two teams, given that they had played two more matches than the Boks.

The flow of the game at Cape Town Stadium, however, as well as the shock result, will have many revising their predictions as both of these giants prepare to collide in what should be a Test series for the ages.

South Africa A – Tries: S’bu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am. Conversions: Morné Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn.
British & Irish Lions – Try: Wyn Jones. Conversion: Owen Farrell. Penalties: Farrell (2).