A week after a victorious warm-up against Japan, the British and Irish Lions kicked off the main part of their tour with their first match on South African soil, facing off against the Sigma Lions at Ellis Park. The tourists got off to a strong start, with debutants Louis Rees-Zammit and Hamish Watson both going over in the opening 10 minutes. The second try appeared to spark some life into the home team, and they quickly grew into the match, with the tourists spending a 10 minute spell defending in their own 22. They survived this, and soon added to their score with a try for Ali Price, who went through a huge gap in midfield off a clever lineout move, though the home team hit back almost immediately through the impressive Vincent Tshituka after a break by his fellow back row Francke Horn. As the clock ticked down, it looked like Wyn Jones had extended the tourists lead with another try, however it was disallowed on review due to a neck roll from Courtney Lawes and the half ended 7-21.
It didn’t take long for the scoring to begin after the break, with not even 2 minutes on the clock before another lineout move put Josh Adams though, though the Sigma Lions found an immediate answer as Horne again broke the line and fed speedster Rabz Maxwane. The strength in depth of the tourists soon began to show as the benches began to empty, and they scored again as the hour approached, with a perfectly-weighted kick-pass from Finn Russell finding Josh Adams unchallenged on the left wing, leaving the Welsh wing with a simple job of catching the ball and dotting it down. The tiring defence of the home side was losing much of its organisation, and the introduction of Elliot Daly at 13 exploited this, as he broker through and offloaded for replacement scrum half Gareth Davies to score, while Adams completed his hattrick just minutes later with an uncontested 40 metre scamper down the touchline following a turnover near halfway. Three tries wasn’t enough for Adams though, and as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a simple wide passing play from a lineout maul saw Elliot Daly throw a miss-pass to send the wing in for his fourth try uncontested, with Owen Farrell remaining 100% off the tee to complete a 14-56 victory.
“Size matters not”
Whenever I hear the comments that Hamish Watson is too small to make the Test XV, I can’t help but wonder if the people saying it have ever watched him play rugby. He may not be the biggest guy on the pitch, but he is consistently one of the best, making metres by running through bigger guys while also stopping those same big guys in their tracks with his defensive quality… and then turning them over for good measure.
In this match against the Lions, he couldn’t have done much more to show he deserves to be in consideration for the number 7 shirt in the first Test, putting in a Man of the Match performance. In defence, he was perfect, with a match-high 16 tackles completed and none missed, while in attack, he varied things up with 7 passes and 7 carries, with those carries resulting in 24 metres gained (which could have probably been more had one of those carries not been ended by reaching the try line) and 3 defenders beaten, with 1 try scored.
And just in that try alone, you saw one of his real qualities when he carries: the way he shifted his body through the contact to get onto the tackler’s outside shoulder and escape the initial tackle to get over the gainline. As Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, “Size matters not.” Shane Williams proved his doubters wrong with a stellar career, now Hamish Watson is doing the same.
While I would imagine that Warren Gatland already has a fairly settled idea of his starting XV for the opening Test, 1 player who has surely nailed his spot is Josh Adams.
I can’t help think that being the only player to start both of the opening games—and playing every minute of those matches—suggested that Gatland already knew what he was getting from him and wanted to use him early on to secure his spot, before taking on a reduced role (if he is involved at all) in the next few matches and returning against South Africa A in a team that will likely be very close to the XV for the first Test. Well if that was the plan, Adams has executed it perfectly.
While none of his tries may have been super hard, they have highlighted his attacking quality in the way that he will run the required lines with conviction, and has the pace to exploit any space in front of him and the aerial ability to not just take advantage of his own team’s attacking kicks, but also to nullify the opposition kicking game. Meanwhile in defence, he quietly goes about his business without you even really noticing until you realise that the line breaks have generally been down the other wing.
After 5 tries in 2 games, don’t be shocked if we have to wait a couple of games to see the Welshman again.
The first half of this match was notable for an odd quirk at the tourist’s lineouts, as they frequently deliberately overthrew the pack and had one of their centres take the throw. Its not a unheard of move (it is a great way to immediately get the ball to midfield away from the opposition forwards, while a centre receiving the ball on the gain line with a 10 metre run-up is never going to be easy to bring down) but the Lions were using it a lot in the first half, and even a little in the second until Sibusiso Sangweni intercepted one throw and almost went the length of the pitch.
So why were the Lions going this route so often? Was it simply that they had found a weakness in the opposition defence to exploit? Potentially, as one of these long throws to Owen Farrell caused chaos and allowed Ali Price to scamper through a giant gap in midfield on first phase ball, while Josh Adams’ first and last tries also came off first phase ball from a lineout. Clearly there were issues in the way the home team was defending the lineouts on first phase, so perhaps the tourists were simply trying to cause havoc in midfield and take advantage of this.
But part of me also can’t help but wonder if this was done with the Tests in mind. We know that the Springbok lineout is a weapon, not just in attack, but also defence. What if the Lions intend to frequently bypass the lineout with a throw direct to the midfield, where you will likely have Chris Harris/Robbie Henshaw/Bundee Aki coming onto the ball at pace. Not only would this deny Franco Mostert and co the chance to nick the throw, but hitting the ball up into the midfield and quick ball in the same direction would put a lot of pressure on the Springbok back row to quickly come round the corner defensively in order to try and isolate the winger.
Expect the Springboks to be paying attention to the lineout in the coming matches to see if the long throw trend continues.