Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

The day Lions fans had been looking forward to since the Lions ended a tied series with New Zealand finally arrived: the day of the First Test between South Africa and the Lions. Unfortunately, the COVID-19pandemic robbed Cape Town Stadium of fans and reduced the quality of warm-up, but the First Test got off to a huge start, with the Lions immediately putting their hosts under pressure, only for Tom Curry to allow them to relieve pressure by advancing in an offside position as they tested Cheslin Kolbe with a high bomb into the 22. After this, the game turned into a close arm wrestle for control, with the Springboks taking the lead through 2 Handré Pollard, while Dan Biggar added one in reply. However, the tourists’ ill discipline continued and allowed the Springboks a lineout in their 22, from which they demolished the Lions pack and released a break to the line, only for Maro Itoje to win a crucial turnover penalty. The Boks may have been denied a try, but soon extended their lead with 2 penalties, but the Lions started building into the game and winning some penalties of their own, though both Biggar and Elliot Daly missed from range. With the clock ticking down on the half, Robbie Henshaw made the first real break of note in the game, but Willie le Roux recovered well to dislodge the ball as Henshaw was looking for a pass, and the teams went in at the break with the score at 12-3.

Things were immediately different after the break, with the Lions looking much more focused and earning 2 quick penalties to set themselves up with a lineout 5 metres from the hosts’ line. Luke Cowan-Dickie found his jumper, and as the maul came together and span around, the English hooker was given the easiest of rides over the line for the opening try. With their lead cut to 2 points, the Springboks thought they had found an immediate answer as Damian de Allende released Lukhanyo Am down the left wing. As cover came across, the centre kicked downfield and Willie le Roux won the race to dot the ball down, only to be adjudged offside by TMO Marius Jonker. Just minutes later and the Boks were breaking down the same wing again, with Pieter-Steph du Toit cleaning up a wild pass from Pollard and releasing Makazole Mapimpi. As the wing came under pressure, he chipped back infield, and when du Toit failed to collect the ball (with Jonker deeming there was no knock on) he collected his own kick and, with Stuart Hogg holding him up on the line, offloaded to Faf de Klerk to put the home team back ahead. The Springboks had only played 1 Test match since winning the World Cup (unless you count the strong South Africa “A” team that recently faced the Lions), and that lack of Test match fitness appeared to show as the second half went on, leading to the team conceding penalty after penalty. Dan Biggar kicked 3 penalties to take back the lead, before a tip tackle from replacement Hamish Watson allowed Pollard to pull the Springboks back within 2 points. South Africa thought that they had scored again with 10 minutes remaining as a poor pass from Kyle Sinckler was shovelled on under pressure, with the ball eventually being dotted down by de Allende, but they were again denied by the TMO, who confirmed that there had been a knock on just prior by Cheslin Kolbe. As the clock ticked down Owen Farrell extended the lead to 17-22 with a penalty, and after the hosts claimed the restart, Maro Itoje released the building pressure with a timely strip just after the clock entered the red, and Stuart Hogg put the ball into touch to secure a 1-0 advantage for the tourists in the series.

Tipping point

One moment that is sure to get some scrutiny over the week (and probably some words from Rassie Erasmus) came in the 64ᵗʰ minute as the Springboks were awarded a penalty for a tackle by Hamish Watson. Willie le Roux had gone up for a high ball, and while the Scottish back row successfully timed his tackle to ensure the fullback was on the floor, he then lifted his legs and took him beyond the horizontal position, with le Roux hitting the ground shoulder-first and going off injured.

This is a tackle that we have seen for years, and the way it has been refereed is that coming down beyond the horizontal is a penalty, with a landing on the shoulder a yellow card and on the head a red, so by all intents and purpses this should have been a yellow card. However referee Nic Berry called it just a penalty in live play and TMO Marius Jonker chose not to intervene during the gap in play as le Roux received treatment.

Now I do have a little sympathy for Jonker. As a South African, he should have been nowhere near this Test, but was called up as a late replacement for Brendon Pickerill. Though I’m sure Jonker would treat this like any other Tests, he must have been aware that every call or non-call would be picked up by either South African or Lions fans as him favouring his nation or overcompensating to avoid calls of bias, and there had already been a couple of controversial calls that had not been helped by poor camera angles, so I can only think that he decided Berry’s initial confidence at the time was enough to stay silent. r perhaps he realised that the Boks were lucky to not have lost a an to the bin for the sheer number of penalties they had given away up to that point in the half, so thought to even things out.

Whatever the reason, the Boks should have had a man advantage going for 10 of the remaining 15 minutes, which could have changed the game, as neither Mapimpi nor Cheslin Kolbe were really given any space by the Lions the few times that South Africa tried to do anything with the ball.

I can’t imagine that there will be any further ramifications for Watson, as the tackle did not look worthy of a red, but the Boks will now have to hope that Willie le Roux can recover sufficiently for the next Test.

Mauled

The Springboks are well known for their aptitude at the lineout—both offensively and defensively—and the maul. So to see the success that the Lions had here was a shock to say the least.

But it came from clever recognition from the tourists. With the Lions looking to get the ball on the move quickly, the Boks countered by having lineout jumpers Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth set up to cover the back and middle of the lineout. In doing so, it left Ali Price having to throw a longer pass to get the ball out to the backs, but what it did do was surrender the front of the lineout to the tourists.

And the Lions took full advantage of this, throwing the safe front balls, setting up the mauls and quickly putting as much pressure through that one side before the Boks could get significant numbers around the side, which resulted in the Lions spinning the maul around to put the majority of the home pack out of the game, which led to Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and a few other strong surges at the maul, while a number of others were stopped illegally by the Boks.

Expect a different defensive strategy from the Boks next week, as they won’t be able to afford to keep giving the Lions such an easy platform to build off.

Changes for number 2

While the Lions may have won the game, there was certainly room for improvement, so don’t be shocked to see Warren Gatland make some changes for the second Test.

In the front row, I expect to see Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong to keep their starting spots after strong performances, but with Wyn Jones coming back in after being ruled out of this game with an injury. Maro Itoje was arguably the best player on the pitch for the Lions and when he keeps his discipline is one of the best locks in the world, so he will keep his spot alongside talismanic leader Alun Wyn Jones. In the back row, Tom Curry got on the wrong side of Nic Berry but I expect him to keep his spot alongside Jack Conan and Courtney Lawes, who did what was asked of him despite the feeling that Tadhg Beirne could have done that and more.

In the halfbacks, I expect the partnership of Ali Price and Dan Biggar to continue. Moving into the centres, I expect Robbie Henshaw to retain his place, but move outside to 13 to accommodate Bundee Aki, as Elliot Daly was unsurprisingly unable to replicate his strong performances against a more physical midfield. In the back 3, Duhan van der Merwe had a solid game, but I expect him to lose his starting place to Josh Adams, who will have had an extra week to get his emotions in check, with Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg keeping their spots.

On the bench, I don’t expect many changes, with Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler holding their spots, while a great performance in the scrum from Mako Vunipola will elevate him to the bench ahead of Rory Sutherland, who was meant to be the replacement in this game before Jones’ injury elevated him to the starting spot. to complete the cover for the pack, Hamish Watson and Tadhg Beirne will keep their spots, as I don’t envision any citing for Watson. After solid performances off the bench, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell will keep their spots, while I think that Liam Williams‘ ability to also cover fullback will see him just hold out van der Merwe for the 23 shirt.

Who do you think will feature next weekend?

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Lions Tour 2021: Stormers v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: Stormers v British & Irish Lions

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

The 23

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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”
  15. 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?

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

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.

Holding back

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.

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Lions Tour 2021: Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions (Match 2)

Lions Tour 2021: Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions (Match 2)

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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Lions Tour 2021: Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions (Match 1)

Lions Tour 2021: Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions (Match 1)

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.

Too easy?

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.

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Lions Tour 2021: Sigma Lions v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: Sigma Lions v British & Irish Lions

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.

Nailed on

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.

Going long

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.

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South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

Over 600 days after becoming World Champions, South Africa finally made their return to Test rugby with the first of 2 matches against Georgia as their warm-up for facing the British & Irish Lions. The long time without Test rugby certainly showed early on as the team struggled with cohesion and discipline in the first half hour, with Aphelele Fassi’s debut try the one bright spark as Tedo Abzhandadze kicked 3 penalties to put the Lelos ahead. South Africa grew into the game though, and took advantage of Beka Saghinadze’s yellow card to take a 19-9 halftime lead, with tries from Bongi Mbonambi and Cobus Reinach.

As the substitutions began after the break, the strength of the Spingbok pack saw Kwagga Smith go over from 5 metres out after a series of scrum penalties, and after Herschel Jantjies also sniped over from close range, Malcolm Marx completed the scoring with the easiest of finishes as a 5m catch and drive obliterated the Lelos defence and allowed the hooker to simply drop to the floor once over the line, securing a 40-9 victory.

Going for it

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thrilled to see the Springboks constantly turning down the chance for 3 points when they had a penalty and instead going for scrums or kicking for the corner. Often, I can understand going for the 3 to some degree, even if it just to build up a lead and then look to take chances later on, but in this game it always looked as if the Boks would be able to run away with it as they grew into the game, if only due to the face that Georgia were constantly defending, which would tire them out.

This was a warm-up game, and after almost 2 years without a Test match, South Africa needed to take every opportunity to compete in Test match conditions. While the Boks would likely take the 3 points in the Tests, there would be no benefit to waste almost 3 minutes (from the time the penalty is given, including making the decision to go for goal, the time allowed to take the kick—which rarely appears to be policed—and then the time to prepare for the restart) each time a penalty was given in range. Kickers do so much practice, and both Pollard and Jantjies are so experienced, a Test match without going for the 3 points will not harm them, whereas going for the corner and scrums allowed the Springboks to maximise the time they had actually playing rugby and working through any issues.

Don’t be surprised to see more of the same in the second Test, but a much more pragmatic approach once they face the Lions.

Power players

The Georgian scrum is one of the most feared weapons in the game, so to see it given such a torrid time by the Springboks shows the quality they have. While Trevor Nyakane struggled a little in the first half, Ox Nché held up well against the Lelos, but the true damage was done when superstars Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe came on.

While Kitshoff won a series of penalties against his opposite number in the build-up to Kwagga Smith’s try, Malherbe was dominant on his side, often getting a push on to wheel or crumple the Georgian pack. It brought back immediate memories of the Rugby World Cup final, where he put on a clinic at the scrum and was only really dealt with to some degree once Joe Marler came on.

It’s going to be a tough test for whoever wins the 2 loosehead spots in the Test 23—currently between Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland or Mako Vunipola. If one of these players goes down injured, it will be interesting to see if Gatland goes to Joe Marler (who never received an email to say he was in contention for the squad) given his recent form and his Man of the Match performance in the Premiership final.

Weakness exploited

This may sound very harsh, but until Georgia sort out their lineout defence, they are not going to win a match against a Tier 1 Nation.

The Lelos’ issues defending the maul were apparent during the Autumn Nations Cup and things looked no better in this match, with both Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx scoring from 5m catch and drives—Marx’s try especially looking like a walk in the park for the Springbok pack—and a number of other penalties being given away for collapsing the maul.

But it wasn’t just the maul this time that caused issues for the Lelos, as they gave away as many penalties at the lineout itself. Whether it was a tactic to try and disrupt the South Africans setting up the maul, or an attempt to win the ball back so they didn’t have to defend the maul, the Georgians were putting a man up to compete at most lineouts, but they were then giving away penalties for being too aggressive and taking the man in the air or bringing their jumper too far across the mid-line.

I find it hard to believe that these lineout and maul issues are down to just the players and thin that the Lelos desperately need to get someone in to sort out their lineout defence, or this will be a weakness that every team uses against them.

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Lions Tour 2021: British & Irish Lions v Japan

Lions Tour 2021: British & Irish Lions v Japan

The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour kicked on Saturday at Murrayfield as the Lions warmed up against Japan. While Japan put up a brave fight, the strength of the Lions pack saw them largely in control of the match and they opened up a 21-0 halftime lead, with tries from Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Robbie Henshaw. The Lions continued the assault after the break, and just minutes after Courtney Lawes had a try chalked off for losing control as he tried to ground the ball, Tadhg Beirne was put through a gap just outside the Japanese 22 and sprinted in for a try under the posts. As the replacements began to change things up, the momentum changed and the Brave Blossoms began to get some chances, with Kazuki Himeno scoring just before the hour mark and being held up over the line up in the final 10 minutes. The Lions emerged with the 28-10 victory, but it came at a cost, with Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric both ruled out of the rest of the tour, with Adam Beard and Josh Navidi being quickly drafted in to replace them and Conor Murray taking over the role of Tour Captain.

Tactical Insight

With the quality of back rows available to the British and Irish Lions, I think that the selection of Tadhg Beirne at 6 gave an insight into Warren Gatland’s plans for the Test matches.

The South African pack is a formidable unit and the word “behemoth” would be an accurate word to describe many of the players. While the Lions have some big units available in the back row, many of their players are smaller, more technical players. However, a number of the second rows selected for the touring party—Beirne, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes—all have significant experience of playing at 6, so could appear on the flank rather than at lock to add some extra ballast to the pack. Not only would they add ballast at the scrum, but it’s also another option at the lineout—another South African weapon.

Of these players, I think that Henderson (and now Itoje, with Alun Wyn Jones out) are more likely to appear at lock, where they will add energy and work rate with Beirne my favourite for the number 6 shirt, as he is a constant threat at the breakdown, but also has the engine and ability in the loose to be a legit threat to the Springboks—just look at his try and his perfectly weighted kick against Japan.

As we watch the upcoming matches against the United Rugby Championship sides, keep an eye on the personnel filling the blind side spot.

Depth in the back row

It’s not just the Lions who have deep options in the back row, as Japan demonstrated in this game. With their star from the World Cup Kazuki Himeno having only recently joined up with the team following the Highlanders’ Super Rugby campaign, he started this match on the bench, with captain Michael Leitch joined in the starting XV by Amanaki Mafi and Lappies Labuschagné.

Labuschagné was arguably one of the best players on the pitch for Japan, winning a number of crucial turnovers, whilst getting involved in the wide channels in attack. Neither Mafi nor captian Leith had the best of games against such a strong Lions outfit, but their quality is well known. However it was no surprise to see the Japanese attack looking more threatening once the replacements cam on in the second half, with Himeno looking extremely dangerous every time he got close to the line, and showing some really smart play all around the park. But the real surprise for me was his fellow replacement Tevita Tatafu. The 25-year-old was an absolute unit, using his size and strength to crash over the gain line with his carries, swatting off Dan Biggar with ease.

While Japan play some beautiful rugby, sometimes it appears to lack the grunt to push over the gain line and draw in the defensive line, leaving them often going sideways rather than forwards. As Japan face Ireland in the coming weeks, I would suggest that the Brave Blossoms pick a back row of Himeno, Labuschagné and Tatafu to challenge the Irish back row, with Mafi and Leitch providing experience and quality off the bench.

On a wing and a prayer

While he may have been able to celebrate a try on his British & Irish Lions debut, Duhan van der Merwe may count this as a missed chance to secure a spot in the Test team.

With the Lions playing quite a narrow defensive line, the Scottish wing found himself caught too far inside on a couple of occasions, allowing Japan to get over the gain line by going round the outside with players like Matsushima. While it never proved overly costly in this match, it’s hard to imagine that players like Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi would not take advantage of this, while a more physical Springbok centre pairing could draw the Lions’ defensive line in even narrower, leaving van der Merwe even more exposed.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the defensive positioning that proved an issue yesterday, as the giant wing also struggled under the high ball, being beaten in the air by smaller opposition on several occasions. South Africa’s march to World Cup glory (currently still the last Test they played) was built on a solid defensive effort, set piece dominance and the territorial kicking of Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk. If a player in the back 3 is showing signs of issues under the high ball, then they will find themselves under constant pressure. Luckily the Lions have 2 fantastic players in Anthony Watson and Liam Williams who are capable of covering the entire back 3 and dangerous in the air, another wing in Josh Adams who is solid under the high ball and another elite 15in Stuart Hogg, so they have the personnel to deal with the South African kicking game. Unfortunately for van der Merwe, that will likely come at his expense.

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Branching Out: Lions on Tour

Branching Out: Lions on Tour

We are now just days away from the first match of the 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour of South Africa. Starting with a Test against Japan at Murrayfield, the Lions will then fly to South Africa, where they will face the 4 South African URC teams (Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks) and South Africa A, along with a 3-Test series against the Springboks.

Taking place every 4 year, the Lions Tours cycle between the 3 nations who made up the old Tri-Nations: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. But what if they looked to break this cycle and tour somewhere else? Honestly, I can’t see it happening anytime soon, but I thought it would be fun to look at some of the other potential tours.

France

Why travel all the way to the Southern Hemisphere when you have such a strong rugby nation just the other side of the channel. When you look at the usual matches you would find on a tour, France is one of the only other nations that can provide the same itinerary, with an established league full of world class talent.

The earl matches of the tour that would historically be against Super Rugby franchises could instead be against a selection of Top 14 teams, who like their touring counterparts will have just completed their domestic season. And of course France would certainly be able to provide a solid opposition in a 3-Test series. That in itself could be the tour, but it would also be easy enough to bring in Italy or Georgia as a one-off Test as part of the tour, perhaps the opener like this weekend’s match against Japan.

Japan

I mentioned that there was one other nation who currently has an established domestic league full of World Class talent, and that is Japan. While it may not get the level of attention as other competitions over here, the Top League certainly attracts its fair share of internationals and could provide sufficient opposition for midweek matches, with a 3-Test series against the Brave Blossoms. And if you wanted to throw in another slightly easier Test, well Hong Kong are currently ranked 22ⁿᵈ and could fill the spot.

The Americas

Now this is where things get interesting, and this would certainly be a tour, as the Lions look to travel to the Americas.

Argentina would be the opposition in the 3-Test series, but the tour would start in the North, with matches against the USA and Canada, and potentially even an “MLR All Stars” team, before travelling South and facing nations like Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

From a perspective of growing the game, I can’t help feel that a tour like this has some legitimate merit, which is why it will likely never happen in a sport where money comes first.

Pacific Islands

Finally we come to one that would recognise the oft-ignored nations who have historically given us such great rugby moments, as we send the Lions to the Pacific Islands.

For the Test series, I wouldn’t look to lift any one nation above the others, but instead have 3 Tests against a Pacific Island equivalent, made up of all the best players from the Pacific Islands. These players would also be away from their respective clubs and national teams (if also involved in the tour) in order to give them maximum time to gel together. And as for the midweek matches? Well we are about to see the formation of 2 Pacific Island Super Rugby franchises—Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua—so they would be in, while the other matches would be against Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, just minus the players called up to the combined Pacific Island team.

Would we see some of the most attractive and physical rugby ever on show, with crowds of fans who adore the game? Yes. Will the money-hungry executives let this happen? I doubt it.

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Do any of these tours sound interesting to you? Are there any other’s you would suggest?

Keep an eye out on here for my thoughts from each of the Lions matches on this year’s tour. I’m not 100% sure yet exactly what format this will be in, while I also can’t guarantee exactly how quickly they will be up due to the myriad other sport on that I will be trying to fit around my job. But it was the last tour that really saw me start writing on here with some regularity and saw the first growth of this site, so I intend to cover the tour as thoroughly as possible.

A Prize Worth Fighting For

A Prize Worth Fighting For

There were crazy scenes in France over the weekend as Steffon Armitage slotted the kick that won Biarritz a penalty shoot-out against Bayonne to earn the final spot in next season’s Top14. Biarritz had finished 3ʳᵈ in Pro D2, but made it through the playoffs (which include the top 6 teams, with the top 2 getting byes in the first round) to the final, where they lost to table-topping Perpignan.

Meanwhile over in England, RFU Championship table-toppers Ealing Trailfinders were hammered 0-60 at home in the home leg of the final against Premiership cheaters Saracens, who were fielding a team chock-full of internationals. Saracens are now just 80 minutes away from being welcomed back into the Premiership, despite rules on promotion stating that a team needs to be able to show proof that they have been within the salary cap for the past 2 seasons (which they haven’t) in order to be promoted. Get ready for a season of BT peddling the “revenge tour” or “redemption tour” narratives for all of their matches.

The final was just a formality anyway, as Ealing had just found out that Premiership Rugby had denied them the opportunity to be promoted as they failed to provide proof before a set deadline that they had a home ground that met requirements. Of course, it’s never that simple though, as Ealing knew their home ground wasn’t sufficient so arranged a ground share for a suitable stadium, but were awaiting confirmation from Premiership Rugby as to the finding they would receive as a non-shareholder in the Premiership. In a league where the majority of teams are being forced to go semi-pro due to the lack of funding from the RFU, it is already hard enough for a team to rise up and challenge the relegated Premiership team (who get a parachute payment to help them) for a spot in the top flight without all the extra red tape and efforts against them from Premiership Rugby.

This is not sustainable in the long term, and it is a clear ploy to introduce a long-term ringfencing of the Premiership sooner rather than later (this is already happening this season due to the impact of COVID-19 on the table). Meanwhile, talent continues to leave these shores to go to France, where both the Top14 an Pro D2 are fully professional and a third tier of professional rugby is soon to come into effect. Only with such a model can a top-flight team have any realistic chance of holding onto its top players when being relegated, while the depth in the quality of player base grows as teams face tougher tests on a weekly basis.

The Premiership may be one of the best rugby leagues in the world, but by the RFU letting them have their own way and not sufficiently supporting the other leagues, the chance of another fairytale story like that of Exeter looks like nothing more than a work of fiction…