Well, we managed 2 matches (1 in South Africa) before the Lions Tour was affected by COVID. Luckily, Wednesday’s game against the Cell C Sharks at Loftus Versfeld was finally confirmed to go ahead, though kickoff was delayed by an hour—a nightmare for those who now had to pick between the rugby and England’s Euro 2020 semifinal—and the Lions were forced into a late reshuffle.
The inconveniences didn’t seem to affect the Lions early on, though, with 2 quick tries through Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe. The Sharks grew into the game, but with impressive wing Werner Kok in the bin, they failed to properly cover an Owen Farrell grubber, allowing van der Merwe to get his second of the night, while Bundee Aki took advantage of a strong carry from Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over for his first Lions try right before the break, Farrell kicking 3 of the 4 conversions for a 0-26 lead.
If the Lions were finding the match easy, they were caught by surprise after the break as Werner Kok helped get around the side of their defence for James Venter to go dot down beneath the posts. The Lions were soon back on the front foot however, as Josh Adams exploited some loose play to make it 7 tries in 3 matches, while his next touch covered a Curwin Bosch grubber and released Louis Rees-Zammit for a 60m dash down the right touchline for a try of his own. As the Lions’ 7 replacement forwards overpowered their tiring opponents, both van der Merwe and Adams went over to complete their hat-tricks in the final 10 minutes, as the tourists secured a 7-54 victory.
With the Bulls unable to fulfil their upcoming fixture on Saturday due to a COVID outbreak, the Sharks will face off with the Lions once again at the weekend as the tourists look to continue their preparation for the Tests, assuming they still go ahead…
Take note, Eddie
It’s safe to say that was surprised to hear Elliot Daly’s name read out when the touring party was initially announced. The former Wasp was always a quality player at 13 and continued to shine for both England and the 2017 Lions on the wing, but was found out following a move to 15 that saw him frequently getting the yips under the high ball and being found out defensively, issues that his attacking qualities rarely balanced out.
However, while Daly’s ability to cover multiple positions probably helped his selection, Warren Gatland has so far used him exclusively at 13, to great effect! While the opposition so far has been questionable (more on that later) Daly has looked much more confident and been a key man in attack, where he has the pace to cause problems himself, but also the range of passes and kicks—including that first time flick on that we saw utilised to set up van der Merwe for his final try—to take advantage of any situation.
Are you watching, Eddie Jones? If not, let me make it clear to you: Daly should be competing with Henry Slade, Joe Marchant and Paolo Odogwu for the 13 jersey if you want to get anything close to the best out of him.
Taking his chance
What a performance in this match from Josh Navidi. The Welsh flanker wasn’t even in the original touring party, being brought in as replacement for Justin Tipuric following the warm-up against Japan, but is surely putting himself in contention for a spot in the Test 23. Against the Sharks, he was all over the place in the best way possible, and was very unlucky not to get the try he deserved after his 50 metre run-in was pulled back for a penalty against Bundee Aki.
Of course, he has plenty of competition for the number 7 jersey in the Tests, with both Hamish Watson and Tom Curry also vying for the position. While Curry may have been a little quiet in this game, Watson put in a super strong performance in the last match and is probably leading the way at the moment.
However, there may be a chance for both of them to make the XV. While I have been of the opinion that a lock/flanker hybrid would play at 6 in the Tests, the Springboks locks are currently dropping like flies, which could result in Pieter-Steph du Toit moving back to lock and a smaller, lighter back row taking on the Lions. If this is the case, Gatland may choose to go for 2 specialist flankers at 6 and 7, which could then see Navidi play at 6 as a tireless tackler, for Watson to then get over the ball and win the turnover.
I want to be as kind as possible, but it’s hard to imagine that the Lions are getting much benefit from these warm-ups so far. 4 years ag in New Zealand, every Super Rugby franchise pushed them to the limit and forced them to be at the best of their game, but the tourists have now handily defeated the Lions and Sharks without getting out of third gear, and also having to deal with a last minute reshuffle and making players who are due a rest play another match.
Sadly for the South African franchises, too many of their top players have gone abroad in recent years, so with the international players also missing from the franchises as they prepare for the upcoming Test series, it has left the franchises lacking the quality of players to really take the game to the tourists, though Werner Kok caused some problems with his attacking play and Khutha Mchunu got the better of Mako Vunipola a few times in the scrum.
While the Springboks may be coming in with limited preparation, with COVID outbreaks affecting training and causing the cancellation of their second warm-up Test against Georgia, they are still top quality players, and right now I can’t help but worry that the Lions may not be getting the preparation they need ahead of the first Test.