How Lions saved Boks' bacon
Allister Coetzee and all of the players will protest loudly and credit the team ethos for the amazing comeback – the Springboks winning 32-26 after trailing by 16 points on two occasions, 3-19 (at half-time) and 10-26 (going into the final quarter).
However, there is no denying the collective energy of the Lions players turned the game in the Boks' favour in the second half.
Three Lions players – centre Lionel Mapoe, flyhalf Elton Jantjies and scrumhalf Francois de Klerk – started the match.
Then, at half-time, Coetzee started to make some bold changes – calls that he has to be given credit for – bringing on Lions captain Warren Whiteley for Duane Vermeulen and utility back Ruan Combrink for Lwazi Mvovo.
That was followed by the introduction of prop Julian Redelinghuys (for Frans Malherbe in the 47th minute) and lock Franco Mostert (for Siya Kolisi in the 65th minute).
In fact in his immediate post-match reaction the Bok coach, Coetzee, looked rather agitated when it was suggested the Lions players had a decisive influence on the outcome of the game.
The impact of these players – as acknowledged by Coetzee – was immense, probably more so as a collective that as individuals.
"They turned it around for us," Coetzee admitted, when quizzed about the Lions in his squad.
However, he also displayed his dislike about the suggestion that the Lions had saved his Boks' bacon.
"This team is not about 15 players, but rather all 23," Coetzee said pointedly, also praising captain Adriaan Strauss for his "leadership" in the manic final quarter.
He suggested that captain and coach are starting to "think on the same wave length".
"I am pleased that Ruan Combrinck took his opportunities, as did players such as Julian [Redelinghuys] and Franco [Mostert]."
Then came the rider.
"Those guys are not Lions players, they are Springboks."
Credit must go to Coetzee for having the courage of his conviction and pulling a number under-performing players from the field at crucial stages.
However, to fully appreciate the value of the Lions players, it is worth looking at why the Springboks were so easily outplayed by the Irish in that first half.
To use a classic coach's cliche, it is not so much what players did with the ball – although that is also important – but what they do off the ball that is telling.
And this is where Coetzee's senior troops let him down badly … again.
As was the case in the 20-26 loss in the first Test in Cape Town the previous Saturday, the likes of Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Frans Malherbe were not delivering.
Throw in Kolisi, one of the more energetic players at Newlands, and Mvovo, then you begin to get an idea why the Boks were performing so far below their optimum level.
Ten minutes into the game at Ellis Park this past Saturday Vermeulen was walking around, shoulders slumped and head bowed. His body language suggested a case of being disinterested. Perhaps his elbow injury happened early and affected him more than we realise.
I can't read players' minds, only their body language. However, based on his performances the past two weekends Vermeulen is a pale shadow of the star he was in the recent past.
Louw was also ineffective and lethargic.
Perhaps he, like Vermeulen, is suffering the affects of a taxing 18 months of ongoing rugby.
Louw has been playing in Europe, joined the Boks for their international campaigns (including the World Cup) last year, then went straight back to his English club Bath and is now back with the Boks.
Maybe he is in desperate need of a break.
As is Vermeulen, who – apart from a period on the sidelines with a serious neck injury last year – has also not had a proper reconditioning break in the past 18 months.
Malherbe, Kolisi and Mvovo are just badly out of form and lack discipline.
Malherbe, the most penalised Bok in Cape Town, was again a major culprit as South Africa conceded six silly first-half penalties at Ellis Park.
Mvovo was clearly targeted by the Irish and – as he did in Cape Town – again failed to deal with the numerous high bombs launched in his direction.
The Irish's tactics backfired badly when they tried the same with Combrinck, who not only confidently collected the high balls, but ran back hard at the Irish and often left defenders sprawling in his wake.
Kolisi was also out of sorts, struggling with his handling and lost the bit of fizz he had at Newlands.
Finally Tendai Mtawarira also appears to be badly in need of a break, although his replacement, Trevor Nyakane, is in desperate need of some conditioning.
The key moments in this past weekend's match were when Coetzee made those two changes at half-time and then Combrinck's try in the 56th minute.
The Boks were still down 3-19 at that stage and looked to be heading for a series defeat.
Fullback Willie le Roux, another player who was guilty of numerous brain explosions at Newlands and Ellis Park, seemed to benefit from the energy and power brought into the game by Combrinck.
That quick line-out thrown and support running by Combrinck, which resulted in the replacement's try, sparked the Boks back to life.
Le Roux suddenly started running better lines, not crabbing across the field looking for support and dummy runners.
In the end Combrinck clocked up nearly 100 running metres, beat a handful of defenders – including twice bowling over would-be tacklers – and even sparked Damian de Allende into regaining some of his mojo.
Whiteley's wisdom may have been a contributing factor to the captain's improved decision-making in the final quarter.
Redelinghuys certainly showed what Coetzee meant last week when he spoke of players' body height, while Mostert's power and energy was there for all to see when he helped Pieter-Steph du Toit over the line for a crucial try in the 70th minute.
The fact that the Boks scored four second-half tries – outscoring the Irish by four tries to two – is a statistic as telling as any other.
Also, the possession statistics – which in the first half saw the Irish retain the ball for more than 60 percent of the time – dramatically changed when the Boks increased their tempo and play with energy. Now they had 60 percent of the possession and dominated territory.
Perhaps the crowd's reaction is another valuable fact worth recording.
At the half-time break they roundly booed the Boks off the field.
At the end of the match there was cheering, singing and joyous dancing in the isles – as the 44,000-odd fans celebrated a win that could be a turning point in the new coach's term.
Those senior players are still talented and quality individuals. However, they seem to lack the 'desire' required at Test level.
Coetzee – this past week – repeatedly spoke of "second chances" and "consequences".
The repeat offenders have had their second chances.
Now it is time for Coetzee to again have the courage of his convictions and ensure they 'suffer the consequences' of their actions.
Perhaps Coetzee – for the third Test in Port Elizabeth this coming weekend – should start with the XV that finished at Ellis Park.
He may even bring some fresh faces onto the bench for the decisive third Test at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium.
Repeating the bold decisions he made at Ellis Park will show Coetzee can take the Boks into the new era of expansive rugby.
This would not be a bad starting XV in PE: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Jon-Paul Pietersen, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
By Jan de Koning, in Johannesburg