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: 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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Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

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Of course, there is only one way for me to cap off the competition: picking my Team of the Tournament. As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: The general consensus used to be that a prop doesn’t reach their prime until their 30s, and while John Afoa may still be a great example of this, Cryril Baille is showing that this prime may now be coming earlier. The Toulouse loosehead is already a dominant scrummager, but the way that he gets involved around the park takes his performances to another level, with strong carries and reliable handling skills.

2) Julien Marchand: After years of being a superb back-up to Guilhem Guirado, it felt like this was finally the time for Camille Chat to dominate the French number 2 jersey. Instead, he finds himself now behind Julien Marchand, as one of the most dangerous hooker pairings in World Rugby. The Toulouse hooker is solid at the set piece and showed against Scotland how he could combine with Baille to dominate a tighthead, while throughout the tournament he showed his threat with ball in hand, combining with Antoine Dupont to make significant ground around the fringes.

3) Kyle Sinckler: Sinckler gets the spot here off the back of some strong displays, but the tighthead spot certainly wasn’t full of players clamouring for selection, while the fight for the starting spot between Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter proved costly for the Irish pair. Sinckler is a strong scrummager and physical defender, and hopefully a more attacking mentality for the English going forward can utilise him here too.

4) Iain Henderson: If you read my thoughts on the Irish second row last week, then you probably won’t be too surprised by my selections here. Henderson combines the physicality and set piece organisation of a lock with the engine and breakdown threat of a back row while also bringing plenty of leadership from his time captaining Ulster.

5) Tadhg Beirne: I was a massive fan of Beirne when he was at Scarlets due to his qualities, and now with a regular run of games in the Ireland XV he is showing that ability to the world. Equally capable of playing at lock or in the back row, I feel that he is still better suited as a lock as it opens up another spot in the back row for more tactical flexibility. After multiple Man of the Match awards in this year’s tournament, expect to see him as a regular in the Irish XV for the rest of this cycle.

6) Seb Negri: It was a tournament to forget for the Azzurri, but Seb Negri makes the list here by continuing to give a physical edge to the Italian attack despite the loss of Jake Polledri. The flanker continually gave 100% for the team and regularly looked one of their better players. Hopefully that effort will soon start translating into wins.

7) Hamish Watson: Anyone who says Watson is too lightweight to face the Springboks as part of the British and Irish Lions needs to watch him play more closely. The openside may not be the biggest guy on the park, but carries with such strength and determination you will often see him throwing players off and breaking the gain line when given the ball. Meanwhile in defence, he is a reliable tackler, and when you get him latched over the ball as a jackal, you’re not moving him until he completes the turnover or wins the penalty.

8) CJ Stander: Taulupe Faletau looked much better this season than he has in a couple of years and is unfortunate to just miss out here to Stander. The South African looked more mobile this year when carrying while still having a great impact around the park. Caelan Doris will be a great player for Ireland once back from injury, but Stander will be tough to replace.

9) Antoine Dupont: Is there a better scrum half in the world right now? Dupont seems able to do everything. He has pace, guile and elusiveness, while he always seems to pop up in the right spot to carry on (or finish off) attacks. Not only that, but unlike many young attacking 9s, he also has the cultured boot and tactical kicking game to put the team in the right areas on the pitch.

10) Matthieu Jalibert: Jalibert was my pick following the Autumn Nations Cup and just keeps hold of the spot here, ahead of Jonathan Sexton. He came into the tournament as aa starter courtesy of Romain Ntamack’s injury, but he quality of his play was such that he must surely be running his rival close now. Had he not suffered a head injury in the first half against Wales, I can’t help wonder if the Six Nations trophy would have gone to Les Bleus.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: He may not be the most reliable defensively, but the Edinburgh wing had a huge impact on matches when Scotland were going forwards. He has that strength to run over people out on the wing or even to crash through in midfield, but he also has the speed and athleticism to exploit any space given to him. I’ll be shocked if Warren Gatland doesn’t take him to South Africa after breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s record for defenders beaten in this year’s tournament.

12) Robbie Henshaw: My vote for player of the tournament. It doesn’t matter who you put around him or whether you play him at 12 or 13, you know that Henshaw will put in 100% effort from first whistle to last. Not only that, but he has such a broad range of skills that he can excel in defence, crashing up the middle or spreading the ball wide.

13) George North: I’ve been questioning how long North’s international career could continue with the quality of players now available to Wales on the wing, but a move to outside centre looks like it may have just extended his international career by a couple of years, and he even beats out Chris Harris for the spot in this XV. North has a great blend of pace and physicality that come in handy at a position where you will see such a variety of attacking play, but he has also adapted well to arguably the hardest position on the pitch to defend, while Wales look to be moving him around well in attack to create match-up nightmares or draw in defenders to release players like…

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: The Gloucester flier has the kind of pace that a former prop like me could only ever dream of… and he knows how to use it to get to the try line. Capable of also slotting in at 15 if required, he is capable under the high ball, and is not the defensive liability you may expect from many young attacking wingers.

15) Stuart Hogg: The Scottish captain is on fine form and will surely be wearing the 15 shirt in the first Lions Test. Hogg has the all-round game to act as a second playmaker, with a howitzer of a right boot to put his team in the right areas of the pitch. And you can always guarantee that the Exeter fullback will give 100% to the cause and wear his heart on his sleeve.

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