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The unseen Lions v South Africa moments inside empty stadium amid special scenes of unity

Luke Cowan-Dickie, out on his feet, couldn’t stop himself in the final few minutes.

He was the Lions’ Sea of Red, creeping onto the pitch from the bench as the Lions held on to victory in the first Cape Town. The Exeter hooker was nearly 10 yards onto the playing surface at one point as the tourists chased a perfect, if at times seemingly unlikely, start to this series.

Matches without fans have become a norm in the past year.

As such, players have become adept at being their own cheerleaders, bringing the energy themselves that is naturally lost by the lack of a crowd.

Perhaps the one place where that theory would be tested was the Lions tour. Much is made of the impact of the Red Sea, whether that’s in the Gabba in 2001 or Wellington in 2017.

There were, of course, no Lions fans around this time.

So the burden fell to the players and coaches alone.

For 40 minutes, the world champion Springboks won that department.

The loudest Irish voice to be heard in the stands wasn’t in the Lions camp, but the Springboks.

Former Munster man Felix Jones is a valued member of Jacques Nienaber’s staff and his Irish tones rang out into the Cape Town night.

“No penalties. Just fold and isolate,” would be the instruction from his boss.

The Irishman would reinforce that with impetus.

“F**king fold, lads.

“Who in the f**k is defending that side?’ Fold!”

The pair, with Rassie Erasmus down on the touchline, were two fidgety balls of energy, continuously moving on their feet as they relayed messages down the to the touchline.

But they were also remarkably quick to the draw.

When the Lions set up to throw over the top of the lineout to centre Robbie Henshaw, the pair were getting the message down immediately to ”Check the All Black, check the All Black”.

The Boks read it and Henshaw was met by a wall of green jerseys in midfield in a thunderous collision.

On another occasion, Handre Pollard put up a high ball. No sooner had it left his boot than the coaching box declared “That’s the one”.

The kick was indeed on the money, with Stuart Hogg dropping it.

In the stands, the Boks’ wider squad seemed relaxed – almost amused at times – about the Lions’ challenge.

After a couple of early scrums, some of the reserves were laughing in the stands. The wise head of Morne Steyn looked a little more cautious.

So too when he puffed out his cheeks and sighed in relief after the Boks survived an onslaught at the scrum. He’s been here before to know things are never settled early in these matches.

Even so, half-time looked bleak for the Lions.

As Ken Owens marched out to warm-up at the break, he stood there on the turf, looked around, put his hands on his hips and exhaled. The task at hand was likely harder than he wished.

But, for the 40 minutes that followed, the Lions were their own cheerleaders as they somehow beat the Boks at their own game, controlling proceedings with the sort of kick-pressure game to which South Africa own the patent.

Getting out of the gate straight from the break, Tom Curry celebrated a penalty by jumping in the air like he’d just scored the winner in the FA Cup final. On the sideline, Bobby Stridgeon was clapping like one of those mechanical wind-up monkeys.

That set the precedent, with that penalty leading to Cowan-Dickie’s score.

Suddenly, the Boks’ voices high up were wilting.

When the ball fell to Courtney Lawes in acres of space as the tide continued to turn, the sight of the powerhouse back-row was too much to take for the home coaches.

“F**k,”was the monosyllabic wail from a South African voice.

There was even more desperation from their senior figures as the Lions moved towards a lead.

“Spacing man, spacing!” was the call from a Bok. “Get some width.”



The British & Irish Lions players celebrate victory

It all culminated to a final few minutes built on rugby smarts and pure adrenaline.

Just after Dan Biggar was forced off with a HIA, the Springboks looked to be threatening to retake the lead.

However, in his first scrum, Kyle Sinckler was rewarded with a penalty. The man he’d just replaced, Tadhg Furlong, was stood there on the touchline.

Enveloped by a large coat, hood over his head and mask over his face, he stood there. Almost motionless, but with his arms aloft in exhausted delight.

There would be more scares.

The last of the hosts’ disallowed tries had many a Lion sweating. Hooker Owens, the man at the middle of a contentious decision in Auckland four years ago, paced around with his head down.

He understood that tense feeling all too well.

As it was, the Lions survived that scare. And all the others.

By the end, Cowan-Dickie could barely contain himself, unable to restrain himself to just the touchline as the Lions held on for victory.

The Sea of Red might be a lot more local than normal, but it was certainly vocal enough in Cape Town.

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