With the first official Test between the British & Irish Lions and South Africa just a week away, the tourists played their final warm-up match, against the Stormers in Cape Town. The Lions welcomed back Stuart Hogg and Robbie Henshaw—who have been out of action for a large part of the tour—while also giving a debut to injury replacement Marcus Smith, and perhaps it was this lack of familiarity in the back line that took the team a while to get going, with it taking almost 15 minutes for them to threaten the Stormers line, Luke Cowan-Dickie being adjudged to have committed a double movement. Tim Swiel eventually opened the scoring on 20 minutes with a simple penalty, but the tourists were building into the game and when Tadhg Furlong broke through the line just before the half hour, the Lions took advantage of the front foot ball to put Adam Beard over just a couple of phases later. This improving performance continued in the scrum, which had been an early struggle for the tourists, and when they kicked a scrum penalty to touch 10m short of the line, the maul spun infield to release Luke Cowan-Dickie for a try that his barnstorming performance deserved. The Lions were getting on top of the game, and finished the half with another try as a long pass to the blind side from the ever-dangerous Ali Price left the tourists with a 3v2 overlap, which they converted to put Jonny Hill over in the corner, with Marcus smith going 3/3 in the half for a 3-21 lead.
It was more of the same after the break as the Lions were taking control and the Stormers were struggling to complete their tackles. A clever inside pass from Marcus Sith found Daly on the angle and he offloaded to release Jack Conan, who ha an easy run from halfway. Over the next 15 minutes, Tadhg Beirne twice got across the try line, but lost control grounding the ball under pressure their first time, while the second was called back for a forward pass in the build-up, but after making a raft of changes around the hour mark—including the introduction of returning tour captain Alun Wyn Jones—the team re-settled and got back to scoring ways as Zander Fagerson pushed over from close range with a pick and go. The Stormers finally saw themselves get some possession and territory entering the final 10 minutes, but lost control as they pushed for the line, and when the resulting scrum saw the Lions win a penalty, Marcus Smith found a gap to break from his own 22 into the Stormers half, where he fixed the covering defender and released Louis Rees-Zammit for a try. There was still time for one more score, though, and when the Lions broke down the left wing through Duhan van der Merwe, a series of offloads in a tight channel eventually saw the ball come to Sam Simmonds with free air in front of him, allowing him to score his first try for the British & Irish Lions, while Smith completed a wonderful performance with a perfect day off the tee to make the final score 3-49.
The sky’s the limit
What an incredible couple of weeks it has been for Marcus Smith! The 22-year-old finished off a wonderful season by being on the winning side of one of the greatest Premiership finals extra, before getting his first England caps (arguably later than deserved) with starts against both the USA and Canada. Things didn’t stop there though, as when he was removed just after the hour against Canada, he was informed that he had been called up to the Lions party, as Finn Russell would be missing time though injury.
Despite only 2 senior international caps to his name, Smith was given the start in this match against the Stormers and clearly trusted enough to go the distance, with no replacement flyhalf on the bench. While he had a slow start to the game as he adjusted to the conditions, he went on to have a fantastic game! Yes, there were a couple of handling errors, but e was far from the only one to struggle with the impact of the greasy surface at Cape Town, but these were far outweighed by the good that he did, with a great range of passes and kicks and playing a crucial role in a couple of the tries and going perfect off the tee.
But this is what we have already come to expect from the young Harlequins star. What was more surprising was to see the way Smith reacted to being targeted in defence, getting involved and racking up the tackles rather than shirking away and leaving the duties to his back row and centres. Marcus Smith has sent a message to everyone with the speed of his rise in the last month and the consistent quality of performance. Could he cap off a crazy summer with a Test cap? Injuries happen on tour, and if he carries on with that quality in training, I wouldn’t rule it out!
Guess who’s back
While Smith was drawing plenty of attention, even more was being directed towards a man at the opposite end of his career, as tour captain Alun Wyn Jones returned to the touring party just weeks after a dislocated shoulder against Japan that should have seen his tour over. Coming off the bench just before the hour, the lock made up for lost time with a great performance, testing his previously injured shoulder with some solid defence and also having some lovely touches in attack. Right now, it’s hard to imagine him not being at least in the 23 for the opening test next weekend, and a place in the XV certainly seems possible.
But should he even be on the tour right now? When the Lions’ touring party was announced, 37 names were announced. Clearly, this was an indication that they felt that this many players was enough to make it through the tour, on the proviso that an injured player could be replaced. And that is exactly what happened with Jones and Justin Tipuric, who were both replaced after the Japan game by Adam Beard and Josh Navidi. Yet now, the touring party is up to 40 players, with Jones retuning to the party, Marcus Smith’s callup despite Finn Russell staying with the squad and the call-up of Ronan Kelleher—who is unlikely to even feature in a match now that just the Tests remain—purely because it was decided that a fourth hooker on tour could come in handy.
Once you have picked your squad, new players should only be coming in to replace outgoing players, or it is simply watering down the distinction of being part of the British & Irish Lions. Smith’s arrival in South Africa should have been partnered by Finn Russell going home, while Jones (once replaced) and Kelleher should only have gone out to South Africa if other players got injured and needed replacing.
Of course, Warren Gatland has previous for this, with the decision to call up the “Geography 6” mid-way through the tour of New Zealand 4 years ago. With moves like this, the honour of a Lions call-up is being diluted. Is this due to a foreign head coach not quite understanding how special the honour is, or is this a sign of the way rugby is changing. Only time will tell
Last weekend following the second match against the Sharks, I tried to predict the starting XV for the first Test against the Springboks. Now, with all of the warm-up games played, I’m looking to revise this line-up, but also go a step further by predicting the entire 23 that will be named on Wednesday.
Before I start, I want to make very clear that this is not my picks for the 23, but rather what I believe Warren Gatland will go for.
- WYN JONES: Rory Sutherland didn’t have the best of times at the scrum in this game (albeit against a prop who was often scrummaging illegally) and as such I think that Wyn Jones will take the starting spot in preparation for likely facing Frans Malherbe
- JAMIE GEORGE: It was a choice between the 2 Englishmen here, but with a number of more dynamic options elsewhere in the XV and due to a selection at lock, the more defensive Jamie George gets the start here
- TADHG FURLONG: Any coach would love the chance to pick between Furlong and Sinckler. Both bring so much to the team, but the Irishman’s carrying just gets him the starting spot
- MARO ITOJE: The Saracen was a star of the New Zealand tour and has been great once again, especially in the lineout. Picking him and George together also creates a lineout partnership that has plenty of experience at both club and national level
- IAIN HENDERSON: Don’t be shocked if Alun Wyn Jones ends up starting, and I certainly expect him to take the spot in the later Test, but the Irishman has done a solid job through the tour and offers an engine on offence and defence
- TADHG BEIRNE: Picking the Munster star at 6 provides an extra lineout option and an incredible engine. Beirne will tackle all day long, earn a couple of turnovers and also bring some dynamism to the attack
- HAMISH WATSON: It’s a real shoot-out between Watson and Curry for the 7 shirt, but with Beirne a legit turnover threat, the tireless tackling of Hamish Watson becomes more of an option, while he also has the ability to always make a metre or two in contact
- TAULUPE FALETAU: None of the 8s have really separated themselves from the others on tour, and if Tom Curry had spent some time at the position in a match I would have selected him here to create a super dangerous back row. However, I have instead gone for Faletau whose classy reliability is something Gatland knows well from his years with Wales
- CONOR MURRAY: The Munster halfback wouldn’t have even made my touring party had I been picking, but with selections being made elsewhere in the backs, a tactical kicker is needed at 9 and Murray is the one who is most likely to provide that for you
- DAN BIGGAR: Owen Farrell’s horror show against South Africa “A” came at an awful time, while also giving Rassie Erasmus a chance to point out some more tackles of questionable legality. Biggar runs the game so well and controls the air when competing for the high ball, so I have him starting at 10
- JOSH ADAMS: The Welshman had a quiet match against the Stormers, but continued to show his reliability in defence, while his attacking quality has been clear for all to see throughout the tour
- BUNDEE AKI: The Connacht centre provides a physical match for the Springboks, who will likely utilise Frans Steyn or Damian de Allende at 12, while he also has the ability to earn a couple of turnovers per game if a player doesn’t have sufficient support
- CHRIS HARRIS: Expect Robbie Henshaw and potentially also Owen Farrell) to come into the centre conversation in later matches, but Harris has certainly earned a spot in the Test XV with his reliable defence and capable attack. Harris is the perfect mirror image to Lukhanyo Am, the likely starter for the Boks
- ANTHONY WATSON: One of the later starters on the tour, Watson may not have had as many chances as some of his rivals, but has certainly taken them well. Showed his attacking quality and turn of pace in his first appearance, while his ability under the high ball was noticeable against South Africa “A”
- LIAM WILLIAMS: Poor Stuart Hogg. 4 years ago he looked set to star in New Zealand until a collision with Conor Murray ended his tour with a facial injury before the Tests. This time round, the Scotland captain has seen his chances limited by COVID isolation, and allowed Liam Williams to secure the 15 spot in his absence with some solid all-round performances and secure play under the high ball
Bench: Having just missed out on the starting spots, KYLE SINCKLER & LUKE COWAN-DICKIE will be looking to make an impact off the bench to earn starting spots in the second Test, while a couple of impressive performances of fthe bench in the last week have seen MAKO VUNIPOLA leapfrog Rory Sutherland for the 17 shirt. Covering the second row, you would have thought that Adam Beard had done enough in recent weeks, but he will probably be forced to wait as ALUN WYN JONES makes his way into the 23, while TOM CURRY will cover the back row and likely be let loose along with Cowan-Dickie with 20-30 minutes remaining. In the backs, ALI PRICE has probably been the form 9 on tour, so he just beats out Gareth Davies, while OWEN FARRELL will cover fly half and centre.
But that is only 22 players, and the final spot is a tough one to call. Should Gatland go for a traditional 5/3 split, I would expect Elliot Daly to take the spot, as he would provide versatile cover to all of the outside back positions as well as a howitzer of a left boot. However, I expect the Lions to play a tighter game and go for a 6/2 split, with COURTNEY LAWES coming in as the extra forward due to his ability to cover both the second row and blindside flanker positions, while you know that he will carry hard in attack and tackle tirelessly once brought on.
Do you agree with my predictions? If not, who do you see Gatland picking?