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Lions lose first match of tour to stacked 'South Africa A'

A South Africa A team that started with 11 World Cup-winning Springboks beat the British and Irish Lions 17-13 this morning to hand the touring team their first defeat.

Bundee Aki escapes a tackle by Cheslin Kolbe during a match between South Africa A and British and Irish Lions. Source: Associated Press

South Africa A led 17-3 at Cape Town Stadium after first-half tries by wing Sbu Nkosi and center and captain Lukhanyo Am, and held off a second-half surge by the Lions to strike a psychological blow ahead of the three-match test series that starts on July 24.

The Lions closed to within four points after a try by prop Wyn Jones and eight points from the boot of Owen Farrell. That revival came early in the second half with South Africa A down to 13 men after yellow cards for scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and flanker Marco van Staden. Those two went to the sin-bin within minutes of each other just before the break.

But the Lions couldn't get closer than those four points, although they were within inches of a late try by Welsh wing Louis Rees-Zammit, who grounded the ball agonizingly close in the corner.

Defeat was a setback for coach Warren Gatland and his Lions, who have beaten domestic teams by 40 points or more in their first three tour games and have barely been stretched.

But this was a different level of opposition as South Africa A started with those 11 World Cup winners and also brought a bunch of test regulars off the bench.

“You know the physicality that we’ve had over the last few weeks, that was a different level tonight and I think we needed that,” said Lions captain Conor Murray. “We learned a lot of things.”

Murray said the defeat didn't mean “an awful lot.”

“It’s about winning the test series,” he said.

Although the Lions weren't at full strength, and South Africa A wasn't quite a full Springboks team, the game gave some clues as to what might come when the tests begin in Cape Town. After the home team named such a strong side, it was billed as an unofficial fourth test.

For the Lions, there were standout performances from lock Maro Itoje, flanker Tom Curry and prop Jones, who went off holding his shoulder straight after scoring his try. The scrum often got the better of a South Africa A pack that had five men expected to start for the Boks.

But Farrell had a tougher time at flyhalf than in earlier games. South Africa A also got its maul working in the last 20 minutes — a major weapon for the Boks — and that seemed to trouble the Lions.

The game was far more important for South Africa's preparations than the Lions'. The Boks have played just one test in nearly two years since winning the 2019 World Cup and, starved of match practice, decided to throw a host of first-choice players into the encounter for much-needed game time.

“We know where we’re at and we’ll be able to judge and analyze where we need to improve for the tests,” said Am.

Five of the Boks in the backline were playing their first and only warmup for the tests.

They included center Damian de Allende, who gathered a charge down of a Farrell kick to release Nkosi, who sprinted more than half the length of the field for South Africa A's first try. Right wing Cheslin Kolbe breezed past two defenders to set up Am for the second.

Jones had a try disallowed late in the first half as the Lions camped on South Africa A's line, prompting de Klerk to go to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle and van Staden for infringing at the ruck.

Jones did get his try from close range five minutes into the second period and South Africa A didn't score any points in that half.

“We can be really proud of what we did in the second half in particular,” said Murray. "We can learn from the first half. If we start slow against this side we’re going to be under massive pressure.

“It hurts to lose in a Lions jersey but ultimately it's about the test series.”