With COVID causing the British & Irish Lions’ match against the Bulls to be called off, the Cell C Sharks gamely stepped in to face the tourists for the second time in less than a week.

If anyone was expecting a repeat of the first match’s easy dominance for the tourists, they were in for a rude awakening as Chris Harris’ 4ᵗʰ minute opener was soon cancelled out by Anthony Volmink, before Thaakir Abrahams dotted down a Lionel Cronje grubber to put the Sharks ahead. The Lions were soon level after a 5 metre catch-and-drive saw Jamie George go over, but their next attack saw Gareth Davies’ wide pass intercepted by his opposite number Jaden Hendrikse, who went the length to score. The trading of tries continued as Dan Biggar found a gap in the defence and combined with Liam Williams to send Duhan van der Merwe over, before the Sharks exploited a pass from Biggar that died on the Scottish wing for Volmink to grab his second, while Tadhg Beirne found a gap at the side of a ruck to go over just before the break, leaving the score level at 26-26.

Sadly for Sharks fans, the game was killed off as a contest just 5 minutes after the break, as Hendrikse was shown a red card for a forearm smash on Liam Williams. The Lions took advantage of the numerical advantage, with 2 quick tries from Jack Conan and Elliot Daly, but the Sharks hit back from the restart as the Lions failed to adequately protect Conor Murray and his exit kick was charged down, allowing Werner Kok to go over in the corner. This was just a momentary blip, though, and the Lions soon extended their lead through Jamie George’s second and Anthony Watson. Replacement prop Wyn Jones thought he had added to the Lions’ lead just after the hour, but he was adjudged to have been held up over the line, however this was just a momentary respite for the Sharks, as Tadhg Beirne and Tom Curry both crossed on the next 5 minutes. As the game entered the final stages, the Sharks found themselves with possession deep inside the Lions’ 22, and after a series of penalties, replacement Tour Captain Conor Murray was sent to the bin. The Lions however managed to hold strong and eventually clear their lines, and after Anthony Watson managed to slide out of a tackle and accelerate away, he managed to end the game—and his delayed first match of the tour—with a second try, completing a 31-71 victory.

Made to pay

While the Sharks were certainly putting up more of a challenge in the first half of this match than they did midweek, it’s still hard to imagine that they would have managed to build such a score on their own without the help from the tourists. Pretty much every point they put on the board came as a direct result of the Lions making mistakes.

Let’s look back over their tries. Volmink’s opener was a 1-phase counter after Elliot Daly knocked on, with the Sharks able to recover the ball and break away before the Lions’ passing line could reset. Hendrikse’s try—timing his dash out of the defensive line to intercept Gareth Davies’ pass—came right out of Davies’ own defensive playbook as the Welshman tried to do too much too soon. Next up, Biggar’s pass died on van der Merwe and there was no way for the wing to recover it cleanly, with the Sharks once again recovering and countering in 1 phase before the tourists could reorganise. And finally we have Kok’s try, where the Lions failed to put a blocker in to the side of the ruck, making it easy for Murray’s kick to be charged down and fall right into the former Blitzbokke star’s hands.

As I warned previously, the Springboks will not be such easy opposition. If the Lions want to win the Tests, they will need to be more accurate.

Game ruined

If ever there was a match where you wish there hadn’t been a red card, this was it. What had been a great battle for the first 45 minutes was basically ended as a competition the moment that Wayne Barnes sent Jaden Henrikse for an early shower. Now first of all, this is not at all the fault of Barnes, it was a cheap shot from the scrum half and there was no way that the officials could come to any decision other than a red card. Hopefully the player takes a long, hard look at his actions, as he was having a good game until then.

Unfortunately, it killed off the game right when the Lions needed a challenge. They needed as hard a match as possible to prepare for the Springboks, a team that would front up to them and capitalise on their mistakes. The South African provincial game probably doesn’t have as high a ball-in-play time as the Lions are used to, so I would have expected the tourists to outlast the Sharks in the long run anyway—though the Sharks’ extra experience of playing at atmosphere may have helped even things out—but by giving the Lions a numerical advantage, it made things too easy for them to get over the gain line and then create quick ball to break through whatever gap was left in a defensive line that wasn’t fully set.

By trying to spread themselves wide to stop the wingers, the Sharks failed to adequately guard the fringes of the ruck, at the cost of a couple of tries. But when they looked to defend outwards from the breakdown, it was a simple matter for the physicality of carriers like Chris Harris, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne and Duhan van der Merwe, and the clever running lines of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly to find and utilise the gaps in midfield to great effect.

While a team would usually be thankful at the extra space given by a numerical advantage, I can’t help but imagine that Warren Gatland will have been as unhappy as the Sharks coaches to see the red card brandished.

Prediction time

And so we come to that point in time when I try to do the impossible and get inside Warren Gatland’s head in an attempt to predict his starting XV for the 1ˢᵗ Test. I’ve waited until now so that everybody (bar Marcus Smith, who has just been called up as cover for Finn Russell, who is struggling with an ankle injury.

So before I make my prediction, I’m going to add a couple of caveats:

  • The matches go ahead as planned
  • Nobody currently available is lost to injury/illness/COVID in the interim

Starting in the front row, I think that Ken Owen’s lineout issues will cost him, with the ever-reliable Jamie George starting at hooker and Luke Cowan-Dickie providing an extra carrying option off the bench. At loosehead, I see it being a fight between Kyle Sinkler and Tadhg Furlong, but I give the Irishman the advantage as he was part of the original squad, suggesting that Gatland thinks higher of him. At loosehead Mako Vunipola’s scrum issues were a timely reminder of his failure to deal with Frans Malherbe in the Rugby World Cup Final, so I see Rory Sutherland being handed the number 1 shirt for his reliability, but also the way he has been causing a nuisance at the breakdown.

Moving into the second row, I think that Iain Henderson is a shoe-in, due to his engine and leadership, whilst being a great combination of strength and dynamism. Beside him, I pick Maro Itoje, who will help form an effective lineout connection with fellow Saracen Jamie George. “But what about Tadhg Beirne?” I hear some of you asking. Well he will be starting at 6, where he will provide extra ballast in the scrum, an extra lineout option, and another great dynamic option who can carry, tackle and jackal all day long. His fellow flanker will be Hamish Watson, who has been one of the best forwards on the tour so far, with his reliable defence, strong carrying and also his willingness to deputise at 9 to utilise quick ball. There has been no real stand-out to me at 8 so far, so I am going to predict Taulupe Faletau, who has the benefit of years playing for Gatland meaning that the boss knows how reliable he is around the park.

In the backs, Conor Murray will lead the team from scrumhalf, where he can look to challenge the Springboks with his kicking game. He will be paired with Dan Biggar at fly half, with the Welshman beating out Owen Farrell—whose versatility will make him a key player off the bench—in part due to the way he can dominate the air when competing for the high ball.

At centre, Bundee Aki will be filling the 12 jersey to counteract the Springbok physicality, while he also provides a great source of turnovers in the back line. For his partner, however, I will give 2 options. Robbie Henshaw would be the first choice, but is currently trying to overcome an injury, so if he cannot fully prove his fitness good enough to take on the Boks in the first Test, I can see Chris Harris being brought in as a like-for-like replacement.

And so finally we come to the back 3. Josh Adams has surely secured his spot on one wing, and I think that Anthony Watson‘s strong second half in this game was a timely reminder of his ability to change a game in moments, while his experience at 15 making him more reliable under the high ball than Duhan van der Merwe, who has done well going forward but struggled a little in defence and will likely have to settle for a spot on the bench (assuming Gatland does not go for a 6-2 split).And that just leaves fullback, where I think that similar to at 10, Liam Williams‘ mastery of the space when competing for the high ball will see him hold off Stuart Hogg.

Who do you think Gatland will pick? And who would you select in his position?

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