I am really looking forward to this weekend’s fascinating first test between the reigning world champion Springboks and the touring Lions from Britain and Ireland. In most recent Lions tours the team that won the first test went on to win the series.
The Lions will be acutely aware of the magnitude of the challenge they face. The first four games were relatively straightforward for the tourists; they disposed of Japan at Murrayfield in a professional if uninspiring manner before flying to South Africa and brushing aside the Sigma Lions and the Cell C Sharks twice in a Covid-enforced two-legged fixture. It is fair to say that the level of opposition up until that point did not pose a genuine threat to the Lions as Head Coach Warren Gatland was able to test combinations and partnerships and assess the squad before the crucial first test on 24th July.
Covid has cast a shadow over the tour so far. The South African camp has been riddled with the virus and the squad has been in hotel isolation for a substantial chunk of the past few weeks. The Lions themselves have had to deal with a small number of players and management staff isolating as well as late changes to their matchday squads. Coupled with the volatile atmosphere politically and socially in the country now, this tour is undoubtedly a unique challenge for both teams and all those involved.
The match against South Africa A on 14th July, to which pundits and fans alike referred to as the unofficial 4th test, provided Gatland and his squad with an insight into what they will be up against this coming Saturday. The South Africa A team was ‘A’ in name only; the matchday squad contained no less than 18 World Cup winners with only 2 uncapped players. Make no mistake this was the Springboks and although they have been stuck in hotel rooms for weeks, they put down an impressive marker.
The Lions again had to deal with two late changes to the line-up with Owen Farrell, having recovered from his abdominal strain, stepping in to replace Dan Biggar who had a slight ankle niggle and Liam Williams taking the place of leading try scorer Josh Adams who was supporting his partner giving birth via Zoom. The atmosphere, albeit with no fans in the stadium, was that of a tense test match.
The Lions kicked poorly, and it was a charge down from the towering Eben Etzebeth on Owen Farrell which led to the South Africans scoring the first try of the match, adding to their earlier penalty and taking a 10-0 lead which extended to a 14-point lead, which they held onto going into half time with some mammoth goal-line defence, despite suffering two yellow cards.
The match ended 17-13 to South Africa A, the first loss of the tour, although both teams will have been pleased with the opportunity to assess the opposition ahead of Saturday’s test, despite both coaches keeping their cards close to their chest. The standout performers from the match who put a real marker down for test match selection were Wyn Jones, Tom Curry, Chris Harris and Anthony Watson with Maro Itoje arguably player of the match. In form like that he is a nailed-on starter although with the miraculous return of tour captain Alun Wyn Jones, who will partner him in that first test. Will the Welshman be in a condition to come straight into that starting Jersey?
Last Saturday’s 49-3 win over the Stormers provided further selection headaches for Gatland. Marcus Smith, after only 5 days in the country, played brilliantly. He kicked accurately and managed the game efficiently with an occasional trademark goosestep thrown in for good measure. His performance may just have secured him a spot in the 23 for the first test which would complete a fairy tale six weeks for the 22 year old. The other standout performance from the Stormers game was Luke Cowan-Dickie who put his hand up for the starting hooker berth come Saturday with a bruising performance for 48 minutes before being replaced by Jamie George.
The importance of the first test on Saturday cannot be overstated; it looks as if inspirational Springbok captain Siya Kolisi will struggle to recover in time from his Covid isolation, however, the South Africa A performance highlighted the strength in depth the Springboks have. Selection will be key for Gatland. The front row berths have been hotly contested with perhaps Tadhg Furlong as the only nailed-on starter. Itoje must play at lock but his partner in the second row is still unclear, will Alun Wyn Jones start? Or will Gatland decide on Ian Henderson, arguably the standout lock of the tour so far. The back row conundrum is whether to play a hybrid 6 such as Tadhg Beirne or Courtney Lawes, big men who are both lineout options, as opposed to opting for two traditional opensides to get over the ball at every opportunity. Conor Murray must start at 9, he has chips banked with Gatland from previous tours and his experience is priceless. The battle at fly half is between Biggar and Farrell, on form Biggar starts but Gatland trusts Farrell and he tends to step up for the big occasion.
The remainder of the backline is nigh-on impossible to predict. The centres have all put their hands up, it will largely depend on the style of play the Lions decide upon. Farrell could even step in at 12 to provide an extra ball player in the midfield. The back three players have been on fire, Josh Adams and Duhan Van der Merwe cannot stop scoring and the likes of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg and Louis Rees-Zammit could all feel hard done by to miss out on the test team.
I am incredibly excited to see the 23 which Gatland selects. I think it will say a lot about the way in which the Lions will look to play. If they get it right, I fancy the Lions to sneak home in the first test and that could easily give them the momentum to win the series but either side could come out on top. Let’s just hope that they do not repeat the unsatisfactory shared spoils from the last tour in New Zealand again.