Gerry Thornley: Convincing Lions win vital against capable Stormers

Tourists keen to perform well in final game before opening Test against South Africa

Tadhg Beirne in the engine room with Alun Wyn Jones. Photograph: Inpho

Tadhg Beirne in the engine room with Alun Wyn Jones. Photograph: Inpho


Stormers vs British & Irish Lions

Venue: Cape Town Stadium
Kick-off: 5pm.
On TV: Live on Sky Sports

Like all final auditions, this is not the time or the place to fluff one’s lines. On the premise that the British & Irish Lions should reacquaint themselves with that winning feeling after the midweek loss in the unofficial fourth Test, it’s impossible not to view this last game before the Test series as a final trial.

For example, at face value it would appear that Robbie Henshaw and Stuart Hogg have lost ground through their enforced inactivity, yet the fact that Warren Gatland and the Lions management have managed his hamstring injury until the Saturday before the first Test could be interpreted as a positive sign.

Gatland has consistently talked of Henshaw as the standout centre of the Six Nations and in maintaining that the Irish centre “can have a huge role in all aspects”. Gregor Townsend yesterday cited the player’s understanding of Steve Tandy’s defensive system against Japan.

Granted that was at 13 and today he is at 12 in a partnership with Elliot Daly that Gatland said they wanted to see in action for the first time. Townsend also referenced Henshaw’s kick-chase and aerial abilities in Ireland’s win over Scotland at Murrayfield, and with Wednesday’s defeat against the South Africa A side a salutary reminder as to how critical the battle in the air will be in the Test series, Henshaw’s GAA-honed skills won’t do him any harm.

All in all, a strong showing here – regardless of the opposition – should cement Henshaw a place in the Test midfield.

Admittedly, he has unfamiliarity either side of him in the shape of Daly and 22-year-old debutant Marcus Smith, who has had a crash course studying the Lions’ playbook. The gifted Harlequins playmaker could be anything.

Lions’ scrum and maul

Gatland could scarcely conceal his delight with the Lions’ scrum and maul on Wednesday. Hence, even though the South African A scrum was a far remove from the Springboks’ World Cup winning frontrow which did so much damage to England in the final, when Tendai Mtawarira “beasted” Dan Cole after Kyle Sinckler went off in the early exchanges, the latter along with Wyn Jones and Mako Vunipola have thrown down a marker. That puts it up to Rory Sutherland and Tadhg Beirne today.

If Beirne continues to demonstrate his ability in the jackal, at lineouts and in his carrying, then he should at least secure a place in the Test 23, while Jack Conan’s performance will have to be watched closely. Taulupe Faletau hasn’t reproduced his Six Nations form yet.

Of course, as is the way of these things, the more clinical the Lions are and the more they pull away, it might almost serve to devalue this trial.

The standard of opposition provided by the Stormers oughtn’t to rival that of Western Province 12 years ago, when they extended the tourists to a 26-23 win in the penultimate game before the first Test. Rainbow Cup and Currie Cup form suggests they shouldn’t be too much stronger than the Sigma Lions or the Sharks.

The Stormers finished second in the South African half of the Rainbow Cup behind the Bulls, helped by four points from the cancellation of their final fixture against the Lions. All of their five games were decided by less than five points, as they lost at home to the Bulls and Sharks but won away against the latter. A Western Province Currie Cup side featuring 12 of this starting XV suffered a 30-28 defeat to Griquas last week.

The home side will be without eight players in the Springboks squad, including Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi, but possibly have more pace and threats out wide through Seabelo Senatla, a flyer even on the Sevens circuit, Edwill van der Merwe, the leading try scorer in the Rainbow Cup, and Sergeal Petersen.

They also welcome back Springbok centre Juan de Jongh on the bench, after his return from Wasps, who will earn his 98th cap for the team when he takes to the field.

‘Historic occasion’

Outhalf Tim Swiel, who ended his three-year stint at Harlequins when Smith emerged, is quick in his own right and will be as charged up for this game as any of his team-mates.

Stormers head coach John Dobson welcomed an “historic occasion” now that it has come to pass after Gatland rejected overtures from Rassie Erasmus that the South African A side replace them as today’s Lions’ opponents.

“I completely understand Warren’s position. I think playing the provincial teams keeps some of sort integrity of what is a tour. We would have gone with whatever we were told to do, but we are really keen to play and we are appreciative.”

Wayne Barnes is the referee and in response to Gatland’s claims that Faf de Klerk should have been red carded in midweek, and possibly jibes that if Erasmus is going to be a waterboy he should perhaps carry some water on to the pitch, the SA director of rugby cum stand-in head coach has hit back on twitter by highlighting a couple of Owen Farrell tackles against the South African A side.

He posted footage of Farrell leading with the shoulder when making contact with Jasper Wiese and then bringing down De Klerk with what appears to be a high tackle, adding: “If there is time maybe also get absolute clarity and alignment on this one please. I know its way after the whistle, but let’s just align and get clarity to be sure.”

Temperatures are rising.

Stormers: Sergeal Petersen; Seabelo Senatla, Rikus Pretorius, Dan du Plessis, Edwill van der Merwe; Tim Swiel, Godlen Masimla; Leon Lyons, JJ Kotze, Neethling Fouche, Ernst van Rhyn (captain), JD Schickerling, Nama Xaba, Johan du Toit, Evan Roos,

Replacements (from): Andre-Hugo Venter, Kwenzo Blose, Sazi Sandi, Justin Basson, Marcel Theunissen, Thomas Bursey, Abner van Reenen, Juan de Jongh, Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, Niel Otto, Leolin Zas, Cornel Smit.

British & Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg – captain (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Marcus Smith (Harlequins, England), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Betting (Paddy Power): 33/1 Stormers, 100/1 Draw, 1/100 Lions. Handicap odds (Stormers + 37pts) evens; Stormers, 22/1 draw; evens Lions.
Forecast: Lions to cover the handicap.

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