With just 10 days until the first match of the 3-Test series, the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa took a step up in intensity with a match against South Africa “A”. Intended to be made up of the fringe players from the wider South African squad, however the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—which has heavily impacted the South African squad’s training and caused the cancellation of their second warm-up match against Georgia—resulted in the home team picking a squad full of World Cup winners and experienced international, turning this into an unofficial fourth Test.
If there were any questions over the home side’s ability to match up after so long without rugby at this level, the South Africans soon answered those questions by establishing an early dominance, with Faf de Klerk’s kick following a turnover just evading Willie le Roux on the bounce, while Anthony Watson put in a superb covering tackle to deny Sbu Nkosi in the corner, with the hosts being forced to settle for a penalty. However it was not long until the South Africans were crossing the whitewash, with promising Lions attack reaching an abrupt end as Owen Farrell’s attempted chip into the South African 22 was charged down by Eben Etzebeth, with Damian de Allende picking up the loose ball and feeding Nkosi to go the length. Ten minutes later and the South Africans were on the offensive again, only to be denied by a knock-on at the breakdown metres from the line. Given a reprieve, the Lions soon opened their account for the night with an Owen Farrell penalty, but a moment of magic from Cheslin Kolbe saw the wing beat Chris Harris and draw in Elliot Daly before feeding captain Lukhanyo Am for another try. As the clock ticked down, the Lions had a sustained spell of pressure in the South African 22, and after both Faf de Klerk an Marco van Staden were sent to the bin, Wyn Jones thought he had scored with the final play of the half, only for replays to show a clear double movement, allowing the South Africans to go into the break with a 17-3 lead.
The Lions’ numerical advantage continued after the break, and they finally took advantage of it, with Wyn Jones legally getting the ball over the line this time and Owen Farrell kicking the conversion and adding a penalty a few minutes later. As substitutions began to disrupt the flow of the game, Louis Rees-Zammit almost scored in the corner, but van Staden and replacement Damian Willemse just managed to bring him down short of the line, while at the other end, Steyn dragged a penalty just left of the posts as well as missing the target with a late penalty. That left the tourists with the chance for 1 more attack before the final whistle with a try needed to win the game, but Zander Fagerson’s handling proved costly and he knocked on in contact to bring the game to an end, with the Lions suffering their first loss of the tour, 17-13.
While the ideal tour (from the Lions’ perspective) would have been a 100% winning record, I can guarantee that Warren Gatland would much rather lose this match than one of the official Tests. As such, there was an important balance to meet between sending a message to Jacques Nienaber’s squad, while also not overly tipping their hand towards their tactics for the Tests. As such, I think we saw a few areas where the Lions tried to hide their plans for the tests.
First up is in the lineout, where you may remember a few weeks ago they were regularly going long and direct to the centres. Well in this match it was the complete opposite, with the majority of throws going tot he very front of the lineout. It’s rather understandable, Ken Owens hasn’t always shown himself to be the most reliable on longer throws, so a quick up and down at the front was a reliable way to win the ball back against Eben Etzebeth and co. However, as I have theorised since before the touring party was even named, don’t be shocked to see Tadhg Beirne providing a third lineout option at 6, with a range of throws that also includes the direct throw to the centres and some quick throws to the front before the Boks are fully set.
But even more notable tactically was the decision to repeatedly go for the tap penalty in the South African 22 when they had a numerical advantage. With both a forward and a back in the bin, the scrum was the obvious call here, as the extra man in the pack would allow the Lions the possibility of pushing over for a try and maybe even increased the numerical advantage as Trevor Nyakane was struggling in the scrums for the second match in a row, while the missing man in the South African back line would also leave gas on first phase for the Lions to exploit. However, while taking the scrums here may have led to more success in this match, it may have also allowed the Springboks to see some of the Lions’ key strike plays ahead of the Test series, giving them 10 days to find an answer.
While in the moment it may have looked like poor decisions from captain Conor Murray, I firmly believe that there was method to the madness, which could end up being crucial in the Test series.
A wider picture
There was one other tactical decision from the Lions in this match that I also sincerely hope was for the same reasons as above, but also can’t help but worry that it may have been the way they are planning to play.
The Lions had some fantastic attacking moments in this game, as they used tip-on passes to break the line in midfield while also causing real problems by beating the South African blitz defence to the outside, with a number of outside back and back row players getting a chance to run at wide open space. However, while these moments were highly successful, they were few and far between, as the game regularly devolved into an arm wrestle between the packs and the inside backs, which then ended in a poor kick from the Lions—with Owen Farrell especially having a poor day kicking out of hand—gifting possession back to the home team or hoping that the wingers could do something special on the chase.
Granted, this probably wasn’t helped by Dan Biggar pulling out injured (his replacement Farrell looking well off the pace, no real shock when he’s been playing against semi-professional teams last season) Josh Adams pulling out last minute due to the birth of his child and then an early injury to Liam Williams bringing on Ellit Daly at 15, but these are professional rugby players, who should be able to analyse that by keeping the ball tight they were playing into the hosts’ hands, as the South Africans put pressure on the breakdown and caused a number of turnovers with their destructive counter-rucking. With players like Lukhanyo Am, Frans Steyn and Damian de Allende in midfield, and the incredible options in their back row, keeping it tight is not a smart move for the Lions, and they need to utilise the quality of their players in open space, while getting in behind the South Africans will then put the pressure on them to get back onside before they can compete at the breakdown.
Hopefully when the first Test comes around, we see a Lions team willing to take the match to the Boks out wide. If they continue with tonight’s tactics, then they could be in trouble.
Passing the test
Following the last game against the Cell C Sharks, I put my neck on the line by predicting the Lions’ starting XV for the first Test. With a number of those players involved in this game, as well as some who just missed out, did anyone put their hands up to secure their spot or challenge for the shirt?
The obvious name that needs discussing here is Tom Curry. The Sale flanker had an incredible performance, winning turnovers, securing ball and carrying hard while also showing good speed when in put through a gap by Maro Itoje. Against most nations, I would happily pick Curry at 6 with Hamish Watson at 7, but against the Springboks, I feel that the extra ballast of Tadhg Beirne (who would be my first choice at lock if I was selecting my dream team from every current player) at 6 will be essential, leaving Curry and Watson fighting for the 7 shirt. Whoever wins out will have certainly earned their spot, while the other is surly guaranteed a space on the bench regardless of whether Gatland goes for a 6/2 split or the traditional 5/3.
Sticking with the forwards and replacement Adam Beard put in a strong performance off the bench. I still see Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje as the likely second row pairing for the first Test, but with Alun Wyn Jones on his way back to South Africa, his injury replacement has a good chance of keeping him out of the matchday 23 for the first Test at least.
Moving out to the backs and while he may have become the latest player to fall victim to Cheslin Kolbe’s footwork, Chris Harris put in another fantastic performance. I remember when it was announced that he was joining Gloucester, I was disappointed to see my team signing a defensive specialist with nothing much else to his game. Well either my read of him was completely wrong or he has grown his game considerably, as he is now one of the best 13s in the game, a top defender who has also developed a strong attacking game and can even fill in as an emergency wing. While I felt there was a chance that Robbie Henshaw’s history with Gatland from the last tour and his experience partnering Bundee Aki would give him priority if he could prove his fitness, I think that Harris has now proved himself worthy of the starting spot regardless.
Similarly, Anthony Watson made my predicted XV after just 1 match on tour due to my knowledge of his qualities that would be beneficial against the Springboks. Well I feel even more confident in that call after this game, where he repeatedly found success against his opposition winning the ball in the air, and should have scored a try when he outjumped Willie le Roux for an Owen Farrell cross-kick, only for Farrell’s kick to not be quite deep enough to put him over the line. I’m sure Warren Gatland’s heart was in his throat when Watson stayed down with an apparent ankle injury, but he completed the game and will surely be given the weekend off in preparation for the Test series.
And finally we reach a player whose stocks rose by actually not playing. Dan Biggar was due to start but replaced by Owen Farrell as he recovered from a slight ankle sprain. With Finn Russell having not played since the first Sharks game and Marcus Smth only just arriving and only having 2 caps to his name, it looked like this was between Farrell and Biggar for the starting 10 jersey, but a poor 80 minutes for the England captain has surely left him hoping for a spot on the bench, as a couple of attacking cross-kicks were off the mark, a penalty kicked to the corner went into the in-goal and of course his poor attempt at a chip which led to the opening try. Farrell looked off the pace of international rugby, so Gatland will surely be hoping Dan Biggar makes a quick—and full—recovery.