Every time Maro Itoje and Faf de Klerk square off against each other it pays to keep close attention and in the midst of the British & Irish Lions’ breathless victory over the Springboks they served up another classic. They are contrasting players and different characters but each is a bellwether for their sides – if they play well they tend to end up on the right side of the ledger – and so something had to give. At the heart of a comeback for the ages it was Itoje who refused to yield.
While De Klerk led the Lions a merry dance at times in the first half, Itoje almost single-handedly kept the tourists in the fight when they were threatening to implode.
De Klerk scored the Springboks’ only try but Itoje produced a crucial turnover midway through the first half with South Africa threatening to take the game away from the Lions. That it was on De Klerk and provoked a little more needle offered a perfect microcosm of this nerve-shredding series opener. Even in the last few minutes there was Itoje – ably assisted by Courtney Lawes – leading the resistance against the increasingly desperate Springboks.
If it is stating the obvious that this Lions tour has been like no other then it it is worth repeating just how bizarre it was to be at Cape Town Stadium for the first Test of series plagued by Covid-19 threats and denied a crowd. It did not take much, tuttavia, to imagine “Oh, Maro Itoje” bouncing around the stands had supporters been allowed to attend. “I think these are moments that don’t come very often in your career, so don’t take them for granted,” said Itoje. “It’s a massive privilege to wear this jersey and win as well, it is really special.”
If this is a Lions tour like no other there are some things that never change. When the Lions come to South Africa they are met by a breathtaking physical challenge and here it was no different in the opening exchanges. From the Lions’ point of view, Tom Curry made a positive start, chased down Handré Pollard and bundled him to the ground but Lukhanyo Am’s colossal hit on Elliot Daly a few minutes later set the tone for the subsequent flexing of South African muscle. No sign of dented Springboks egos at that stage so the Lions must take enormous credit for hanging in there before outmuscling a flagging South Africa side after the break.
Just as Springbok physicality can be put alongside death and taxes, tuttavia, so too can a running battle between Itoje and De Klerk. It dates back to England’s tour of South Africa 2018, when the diminutive scrum-half got the upper hand, it has continued thereafter and it should be noted that for all of Itoje’s commanding performances in an England shirt, not many of them have come against the Springboks, including the World Cup final two years ago. In that regard he laid a few demons to rest here – for Itoje seems to find another level when representing the Lions. “Immense,” was Gatland’s pithy verdict, and it was hard to argue.
De Klerk, nel frattempo, may be only 5ft 7ins but here he was thundering into tackles, notably on Daly and Dan Biggar, who struggled at fly-half. His box-kicking was on the money in the first half and he guided his relentless forward pack around the field with authority. There were times it looked as if only Itoje could lay a finger on him, particularly with that key turnover midway through the first half. The manner in which it was celebrated demonstrated its significance.
Itoje had already been driven back in a statement double tackle from Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth but with plenty around him threatening to lose their heads, he kept his before spearheading the response. Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try early in the second half gave the Lions hope that those efforts would not be it was no coincidence that De Klerk was on hand to dot the ball down for South Africa’s try. There was an element of doubt to the score but it should also be noted that some of the crucial decisions by the South African TMO Marius Jonker went against the Springboks and while it must be said that not all of Warren Gatland’s pre-match grenades landed, you have to wonder if that particular one did.
With the visitors having nosed ahead, De Klerk did all he could to stem the tide before making way with seven minutes to go but Itoje stood tallest in the closing stages, driving the Springboks into retreat before producing the decisive rip to seal the match. Chalk up round one to Itoje then – rounds two and three promise to be even better.