Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

We are now a couple of days removed from the decisive third Test, which saw Morné Steyn’s late penalty hand the World Champions a 2-1 series win. So before we turn our attention from the Lions Tour and onto the Rugby Championship, all that remains is to pick the Team of the Series.

For this, I will purely be selecting based on the 3 Test matches, so players like Josh Adams and Tadhg Beirne who had solid tours but barely featured in the Tests will not make the squad. Now of course, the biggest issue with limiting myself to just the 3 Tests is that they were three of the worst matches that I have ever witnessed, so I hate to admit it but many of these selections came down to “who was the least worst?” rather than “who was the best?”

Let me know who would make your XV.

1) Trevor Nyakane: Had Wyn Jones been fit for the full 3 Tests then I think there could have been some more competition here, but injury limiting him to just over 40 minutes of rugby and the lack of consistency from Mako Vunipola or Rory Sutherland made this an easy win for the South African. Steven Kitshoff may have got the start for 2 of the Tests, but it was Nyakane who really shone, putting some poor performances behind him to justify his spot in the 23, winning a number of key penalties in the scrum.

2) Luke Cowan-Dickie: Bongi Mbonambi was far from his best, Malcom Marx didn’t get enough minutes and Ken Owens’ lineout issues were exploited, so Cowan-Dickie gets the nod here. Despite not quite reaching the level of the warm-up matches, he was the most reliable of the hookers, while his strong carrying and low body position caused an issue for tacklers.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Furlong did not always have things his own way but was largely reliable both in the scrum and around the park. Vunipola and Jones’ success against Frans Malherbe in the first and third Tests respectively did the Irishman a favour here.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Eben Etzebeth: Finally a position where it was hard to choose due to the high quality of performances. I am often critical of Maro Itoje as he too often toes the line of legality, but when he holds back just that tiny fraction and stays legal, he is a world class player and showed it throughout the series, with his performance in the first match arguably the performance of the series. Meanwhile Etzebeth did a great job of breaking up the Lions’ lineout at key moments, while also carrying hard in midfield to break the gain line.

6) Siya Kolisi: So as this series went ahead in South Africa, I am looking at the flankers from a South African point of view, meaning that 6 is the openside position. Tom Curry certainly had his moments, but what really stood out in his play were the penalties he conceded, while Kolisi combined solid play around the park with the burden of captaining the World Champions to a series victory.

7) Pieter-Steph du Toit: Courtney Lawes put in some solid performances, but nothing that stood out from what is expected of any player. The same can be said from Franco Mostert. Du Toit may not have even featured in half of the series, going off injured midway through the first half of the second Test, but while he was on the park he stood out, especially with his cleaning up of some erratic passing by Handré Pollard in the first Test.

8) Jack Conan: Boy did this series miss Duane Vermeulen. Kwagga Smith’s skillset did not suit the usual Springbok approach, while Jasper Wiese was a penalty machine. Jack Conan was quieter than ideal and butchered a fantastic opportunity to score in the second Test by carrying on what appeared to be a set move off a scrum rather than playing what was in front of him, but was by far the most impressive of the number 8s with a number of dynamic carries.

9) Faf de Klerk: Ali Price came close, but a couple of key interventions earned the Sale halfback the pick here. A fantastic game manager whose style of play is perfect for the current South African approach. Mad a try-saving ball-and-all tackle on Conor Murray off a Lions scrum 5m from the Springbok line, while put in a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am’s try in the second Test.

10) Finn Russell: Maybe a controversial pick here as he only played 70 minutes, but Pollard was erratic at times with his passing and goal kicking, while the Lions’ tactics limited Biggar far too much. Russell came in and barely puta foot wrong, varying the game up much more and causing real problems for the South African defence. If only we’ seen more of this.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: Is Mapimpi one of he most underrated wings in international rugby? The wing is forced to play a largely defensive role and does it well, but when given the chance to score he was clinical, with a and an assist in the second Test. Imagine how dangerous he would be in a team that created more chances for him.

12) Robbie Henshaw: Damian de Allende was a solid reliable option at 12 and at many positions that would have been enough to earn selection, but unfortunately he finds himself up against Robbie Henshaw. Despite playing with a different centre partner in each Test (and shifted to 13 for the decider) Henshaw was reliable in both defence and attack, while his 2 breaks of note through the series were more than any other Lion managed.

13) Lukhanyo Am: Granted he wasn’t tested overmuch, but this series was anther great opportunity for Am to show his proficiency as one of the best defensive 13s in world rugby. Did a great job of shutting down a number of the Lions’ attacks and scored a crucial try as momentum shifted in their favour during the second Test.

14) Cheslin Kolbe: Arguably should have received a red and a yellow (if not 2 reds) in the second Test, but was allowed to play and earns his spot here. While quiet, his try was a timely reminder of his quality as he fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie and stepped Liam Williams. That Mapimpi and Kolbe basically earned selection by finishing off tries shows just how poor things were out wide.

15) Willie le Roux: The World Cup winner was relatively solid but far from spectacular, but even that was enough to beat out Stuart Hogg. It says it all that Liam Williams was in with a shot despite only playing in the decider, but his selfishness with a 2v1 was criminal. At least le Roux showed us how it should be done when given a chance later in the match, setting up Cheslin Kolbe for his try.

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 3rd Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 3rd Test

12 years of waiting all came down to this. With the 2021 Test series between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions level at 1-1, both teams knew that Saturday’s result would decide the series. Both teams came in with changes made, though it was a forced change for the World Champions, with both Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit out injured, while Duane Vermeulen was also still missing despite returning to the squad this week.

That experience missing from the Springbok back row was soon felt as Jasper Wiese was penalised for being offside following a knock-on just minutes into the game, but Dan Biggar missed off the tee. The Lions looked to be trying to play more rugby than in the previous Tests, but were struggling to find a way to break through the green wall in the early minutes, however when the hosts chose to play the ball through the hands they immediately put the tourists under pressure, and though the tourists just about kept up their defence through the phases, it came at the cost of 3 points through the boot of Handré Pollard and also saw Dan Biggar helped off the pitch, with Finn Russell coming on for his first Lions Test cap. It had been 5 weeks since the Scottish fly half played a game of rugby, but he immediately looked at home and the Lions looked better for having him there, causing the South African defence issues, while he was also on target with his opening kick off the tee to level the scores after Steven Kitshoff was penalised for collapsing the scrum. The Lions pack clearly felt they were gaining dominance over the hosts, and when they next had a penalty in the South African half, Russell turned down the 3 points and gave his pack a lineout just 5m from the line. A quick front ball to Maro Itoje allowed the tourists to set the maul, and after some patient grinding, they eventually got the push on to let Ken Owens drop over the line for the opening try. The Boks looked like they were struggling to match their opponents, but were let off just before the half hour as Liam Williams was released down the right wing. With just 1 defender ahead of him and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover in behind, the Welsh fullback failed to pass to Josh Adams and instead took contact to end one for the best chances of scoring we saw in the whole tour. If there was any worry that this could be a costly mistake, things got even worse just before the break as Wyn Jones—who had been causing no end of issues at the scrum for Frans Malherbe—spent a few minutes receiving treatment before going straight to a scrum, where Malherbe took advantage of his discomfort to win a penalty that Pollard duly kicked to cut the lead at the break to 6-10.

Just minutes into the second half, Jones again found himself penalised in the scrum and was replaced, clearly not feeling comfortable after his injury. South Africa put themselves into the Lions half and repeatedly battered away at their defence, but they struggled to find a way through and Pollard missed 2 kickable penalties. As the clock ticked towards the hour, the breakthrough came for South Africa. Everybody failed to collect Ali Price’s high ball, but it was eventually cleaned up by Lukhanyo Am, who quickly played the ball off to Willie le Roux, who had come on the loop to attack the blind 15m channel that had been left empty by Duhan van der Merwe contesting the high ball. Le Roux broke down the wing with support on either side and duly drew the last man to release Cheslin Kolbe, who evaded the desperate tackles of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Liam Williams to score and put the Boks ahead, Pollard adding the extras. The Lions were soon level through the boot of Finn Russell after he was hit late by Wiese. With Pollard misfiring off the tee and the game still close with 15 minutes left, Jacques Nienaber made a big call, taking off the fly half and bringing on 37-year-old Morné Steyn for his first Test cap in 5 years. With only his second touch of the ball, Steyn had put the Boks back ahead, striking over a penalty after the Lions collapsed a driving maul. And then with 10 minutes left, came the crucial moment. After a Lions lineout 5m from the South African try line was immediately sacked, the tourists went through a series of pick and go carries before Mao Vunipola drove over the line, however the replacement prop was unable to get the ball down, and Trevor Nyakane won a penalty at the resultant scrum to allow the hosts to clear their lines. The Lions soon found an equaliser through Russell’s boot, after a break from Robbie Henshaw ended in Am coming in from the side to play Conor Murray. With just minutes left and the scores still level, discipline was key, and it was the hosts who profited as the Lions gave away a kickable penalty with just 2 minutes remaining. 12 years ago, Morné Steyn’s long-range penalty at the death won the second Test to secure the series, and once again the fly half’s aim proved true as he bisected the posts to give the Boks a late lead. There was still time for the restart though, and when the Lions were awarded a scrum in a good attacking position with just seconds left on the clock, there was a glimmer of hope. However, the Springbok pack put the pressure on and won the penalty, which Steyn duly kicked out to end the game in a 19-16 victory and secure the series 2-1.

Wasteful

When you look back on this match with honesty, you realise that while the scrum fell apart in the second half and the lineout wasn’t a guaranteed thing, the Lions should have still won this game, but threw it away.

On 4 separate occasions, the Lions turned down the option of 3 points and instead kicked for the corner. Of these 4 occasions, only 1 saw them come away with any points: Ken Owens’ try. Just 7 points from 4 visits to the 22 already doesn’t look good, but realising that each time they had possession deep in the 22 makes it even worse. To make things even worse, one of these 3 occasions, the Lions were in a strong position, with the maul once again moving towards the line only for Tom Curry to stupidly detach from the maul and then come back in on Siya Kolisi from the side in an attempt to stop him pulling off into a defensive position as the maul wheeled around. Another saw Eben Etzebeth steal the ball just ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, while the final one saw the maul sacked and then Mako Vunipola having far too high a body position as he drove over the line, allowing the defence to get below him and hold him up, while at this point the Springbok scrum was gaining dominance.

But without a doubt the biggest wasted chance came from the selfishness of Liam Williams. The Welsh fullback was released down the right wing under penalty advantage with Josh Adams outside him, with just one defender between them and the line, and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover. It was the most basic 2v1 drill you could imagine, all Williams had to do was draw his man and pass the ball to Adams to give the wing the simplest of run-ins and extend the lead at a time when the Lions were causing the Boks real problems. And yet for some reason, Williams chose to hold onto the ball and try beating the man, unsurprisingly being tackled and ending the chance.

I have seen some people argue that Williams shouldn’t be criticised for backing himself, but that was the most basic of plays, any professional rugby player—let alone an experienced international back like him—should be making the right call and feeding his support man. This was probably the best chance created in the entirety of the Test series, and Williams blew it. But while this was the worst example, it was juts yet another chance missed by a Lions team that had shown very little inkling to play attacking rugby before this Test. When you play so negatively, it takes time to change your mindset when the gameplan becomes more positive. Maybe if Warren Gatland had tried to play rugby in the previous Tests, the Lions would have been more prepared to finish the chances they were creating.

Risky business

It wasn’t just the Lions’ inability to finish their chances that caught my eye in this game, as there was also another tactical decision they made that could have proved costly, and that was not having blockers in place to the side of the rucks when the scrum halves were kicking.

Now personally, I hate seeing caterpillar rucks and these blockers to the side of the breakdown, as it makes it impossible for a defender to legally do anything to put pressure on the scrum half; but while they are legal it seems stupid to not use them when box kicking regularly.

By having those blockers to the side of the ruck, it just gives the 9 that extra bit of space and time to get the kick away. We even saw in this Test one moment where Ali Price—who does have somewhat of a history of having kicks charged down at Test level—saw his attempted box kick charged down. Especially in this match against the Springboks, with behemoths like Etzebeth, de Jager and Mostert looking to disrupt, having that man in place would have given a bit of extra safety for the 9s.

Luckily for the Lions, they escaped relatively unscathed in this regard, otherwise things could have been even worse for them.

Another gear?

This may seem an odd question to ask after winning the World Cup and Lions Series, but are South Africa holding themselves back?

In Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, they have 2 of the best wings in the world, and yet the pair barely got any chance to attack during this tour. As with the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Springbok’s success came off their pack gaining dominance in the set piece, solid defence and the tactical kicking of the halfbacks putting them in opposition territory, where they can take advantage of the penalties they are winning to build up a lead off the tee.

But as a result of this, what we have seen is that they need to keep the tempo very stop-start to allow the forwards a chance to recover. When the Lions were able to up the tempo, such as in this game when Finn Russell started varying the attack, the Springboks looked in danger. Is it time for the World Champions to change their style?

They certainly have the quality of player. Willie le Roux works as an extra playmaker from 15, and while Handré Pollard is not always the most reliable in a more expansive game, he still has a range of passes and kicks. In the midfield, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am provide a great physical pairing, but do they have enough between them to play a more expansive game? Or would the team benefit from bringing Damian Willemse in at 12 to provide another playmaking option. Simply put, the wings need to get the ball in space more often, and some simple changes to the game plan to utilise more of the ball in hand would allow that.

Not only that, but would it benefit the pack? Malcolm Marx plays like an extra flanker, as does Kitshoff. Franco Mostert has an incredible engine, hence his ability to play 7 for the Boks. Spreading the ball more would also force a defence to spread wider, making the carries of Eben Etzebeth or Duane Vermeuelen (once back) even more effective. But what it would also do is improve the effectiveness of the Kwagga Smith. Much of the build-up to the first Test saw questions over whether Smith could cope at 8 as he is not as physically imposing as Vermeuelen. Well playing a more open game would play into the former 7s superstar’s hands as his dynamism would become more important.

Realistically though, we probably won’t see much of a change while the Boks remain so successful. But with the Rugby Championship about to start, the Boks could be in for a shock if their opponents refuse to play into their hands by playing the tight game the Lions did.

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 2nd Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 2nd Test

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week since the Lions emerged victorious in the 1ˢᵗ Test against the Springboks, what with all the talk about last weeks officiating and the mystery of Jaco Johan’s true identity, but here we are 7 days later with the Lions and Springboks facing off in the second of three Tests.

And after a week where things arguably got out of control and went too far, it’s no surprise that we saw a cagey start to the game, with the first of a number of tussles coming just minutes into the game. The hosts took an early lead through the boot of Handré Pollard but Dan Biggar soon kicked 2 penalties to put the tourists ahead, with Pollard missing jus before the end of the 1ˢᵗ quarter. Any hopes that the officials would have an easy night soon went out the window, and when Duhan van der Merwe tripped Cheslin Kolbe early in the 2ⁿᵈ quarter. Any hopes the Springboks had of exploiting the extra man disappeared within a minute though, as Cheslin Kolbe’s reckless kick chase saw him take out Conor Murray in the air, with the winger probably lucky to only get a yellow. Despite the extra space on the pitch, neither could find a breakthrough, though Pollard kicked another conversion to bring things level. As the half began drawing towards an eventual (the 40 minutes of game time took over an hour to play out) end, the Lions thought they had scored the opening try as Robbie Henshaw collected Conor Murray’s clever chip on the try line, however the combined efforts of Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am held him up in goal just long enough for the host’s captain to strip the ball free, and the Lions were forced to settle for a penalty, which sent them into the break with a 6-9 lead.

The second half last week saw an immediate shift into a higher gear from the Lions, but this time it was the South Africans who came flying out the blocks, and after the Lions failed to claim a high ball in their 22, the South Africans pulled the defence around, before Pollard put in a clever chip to the corner, which Makazole Mapimpi collected to go over for the opening try. The Boks were clearly not going to roll over and hand the Lions the series, and after Dan Biggar saw a penalty attempt come back off the post, some clever substitutions saw them begin to take control. That control paid off just after the hour as a dominant maul drove covered far too much distance before being brought down illegally, and with a penalty advantage given, Faf de Klerk put in a clever grubber from the back of the breakdown, which Lukhanyo Am managed to touch down. With Pollard adding the conversion to take the score beyond a converted try with just 10 minutes left, it looked like the game was done, but the South Africans made sure of it with some dominant play from their pack winning them 3 penalties that Pollard duly kicked for a 27-9 victory that levelled the series 1-1.

Unprepared

The Springboks were poor last week. Considering how little time they have spent together since the World Cup and how badly their preparation for the series had been affected by COVID, anyone with a brain could have expected that they would get better as the series went on. Yet despite that, the Lions chose to stick to a gameplan that saw them try to win the game at the set piece and rely on keeping the ball tight and beating the Boks in the air.

Well that failed miserably, especially as the second half went on, with Ken Owens seemingly thinking that his team were wearing green at the lineouts and Kyle Sinckler getting taught a lesson in scrummaging by Trevor Nyakane, who looked miles better than in recent outings. Meanwhile, though they may have had the height advantage, it looked like the Lions back 3 had all-but forgotten how to play under the high ball. The Lions tried to beat the Boks at their own game… and were handily beaten.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same f*cking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy.”

—Vaas, Far Cry 3

Warren Gatland has never been a coach that I have fully got behind. While I have appreciated how physically fit his teams are, he so often appears to just have 1 plan: going hard in midfield and relying on the quality of his players under the high ball and in the set piece to dominate the game, eventually creating the space out wide for his wings to exploit. However, when that doesn’t work, he so rarely seems to have a Plan B, and that showed horribly in this match.

If the Lions want to come away with the win next week, they need to take a different approach. As great as Chris Harris was today, I think that Robbie Henshaw needs to be moved out to 13 next week, with Owen Farrell coming in at 12 to provide a second playmaking option to play a more open game and move the South African defence around the pitch, with Tadhg Beirne also coming in at 6 in place of Courtney Lawes to provide a more threatening attacking option along with another breakdown threat for the Boks to deal with. Ali Price should be reinstated to the starting line-up as he will provide more variety to the game than Conor Murray, while Liam Williams and Josh Adams should be brought into the back 3.

If they stick to more for the same next week, it could be a long 80 minutes for Lions fans.

Stroke of genius

Sometimes when you look back at a match, it is possible to pick out a handful of moments that proved crucial to the result. One of those today came in the 55ᵗʰ minute, as Jasper Wiese was replaced by Lood de Jager. The Leicester Tigers back row was preferred at number 8 over Kwagga Smith in the continued absence of Duane Vermeulen as he was considered a more physical option, but struggled to make a positive impact on the game, struggling under a couple of high balls and giving away a couple of penalties.

However as if missing Vermeulen wasn’t bad enough for the Boks, they then lost superstar flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit after 20 minutes, as he had been struggling with an injury for about 15 minutes following an awkward landing after a tackle from Duhan van der Merwe. With du Toit going off and Kwagga Smith coming on, the Springboks found the lineout a real struggle, as they were down to just 2 jumpers in Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth, while Courtney Lawes at 6 provided the Lions with a 3ʳᵈ jumper to utilise alongside Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones.

And then came the big call, with Wiese going off and de Jager coming on at lock, moving Mostert to blind side flanker. Now Mostert may not be an obvious option at 7 for the Boks, but has experience of playing on the blindside and the tireless engine to do a job there, but while it may have taken away a bit of mobility in the loose, it considerably added to the set piece. Replacing Wiese with de Jager not only added extra ballast in the scrum, but it also gave the Boks their third lineout jumper again. With de Jager on, the Boks took control of the set piece, and there was no way back for the struggling Lions.

Man in the middle

This was a very odd week of build-up for the match. While the talk before the first Test was about the late call-up of South African Mariusz Jonker as TMO, this week saw things go to a completely new level, with Rassie Erasmus highly critical of Nic Berry’s performance last week, culminating in a 60 minute video highlighting a number of perceived mistakes from Berry that went against the Boks.

With so much pressure it was clear that everybody would be scrutinising this week’s referee Ben O’Keeffe’s performance even more than usual. Refereeing is a thankless task at the best of times but the New Zealander took on the task and did himself proud. While he did seem cautious to make a big call without consulting TMO Jonker and his fellow officials, and while there were some calls that could certainly be argued (most notably Am’s try and Kolbe only receiving a yellow card), O’Keeffe was very clear in talking through the incidents and how he and his team were coming to their decisions.

Will people say that he and his crew were influenced by Rassie Erasmus during the week? Of course. Is it true? Potentially? But should we see a repeat of this week’s criticism, only this time from the Lions? I sincerely hope not. But with next weekend’s Test now becoming the decider, expect to hear come comments from both camps as they try to get the advantage.

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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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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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