Gerry Thornley: Series success looks a bridge too far for the Lions

Warren Gatland's side must find a way to get round the South Africa defence

South Africa V British & Irish Lions,  Cape Town Stadium, Saturday, 5pm Irish time - Live on Sky Sports, highlights Virgin Media Two

And so, not entirely unexpectedly, it has come to this. The script to this point hasn’t been particularly easy on the eyes or ears at times, but, as the TV executives would have desired, we’re back to one-one with everything on the line.

Each has one shot at history. For the Boks, to emulate the heroes of 2007 and 2009 in backing up a World Cup with a Test series win. For the Lions it is to emulate the class of 1997 in winning a series in South Africa.

As the last two Saturdays have underlined, no two rugby games are ever the same, even when it’s the same two opponents playing against each other on successive weekends.


Sure, there’ll still be plenty of arm-wrestling and kicking, the Springboks especially wouldn’t have it any other way given it’s the formula that won them the World Cup and has levelled the series.

Who knows, maybe spells of fluid, running rugby will break out, and for the Lions the more this happens the better their chances. Amid all the ill-will imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the Lions will have to do more than merely out-box the Boks.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boks pulling clear last week, it appeared that not only had they generated momentum and confidence, but they had damaged the Lions.

However, the Lions will have eased their wounds, and Warren Gatland has made six changes and introduced three more players straining at the leash to a much-changed bench. The Springboks have lost two of their most influential, 80-minute men in Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk, and somehow look less imposing by reverting to a more conventional 5-3 bench split.

Whole narrative

Who knows too, but an early try, card or unexpected development could change the whole narrative. Recall Alex Corbisiero doing a number on Ben Alexander in the 2013 decider, or Tendai Mtawarira doing likewise to Dan Cole after Kyle Sinckler's first-minute injury in the World Cup final. All pre-match scripts were instantly shredded.

The lines in the sand will be drawn at scrum time, at line-outs/mauls, and the gain line. Four years ago Gatland rated Mathieu Reynal as the best scrum referee in the world, and he is not afraid to penalise the pack going forward if he sees illegalities.

The scrums have ebbed in a battle royal before swinging dramatically in the Boks’ favour in the last quarter a week ago after the front-row replacements. Gatland and Robin McBryde have responded by starting Wyn Jones and Ken Owens.

Jones is more tricky than destructive, and was the most adept prop at winning penalties in the Six Nations. Mako Vunipola is not a destructive scrummager either, but his ball-carrying and tackling may be more suited to an impact role, and likewise Luke Cowan-Dickie. With Sinckler they may also be a better English unit to finish the game.

All that said and done, the impact of the Boks replacement front-row is hard to forget.

If the Boks have an edge through their scrum or their catch-and-drive their confidence will again swell. So it is that Adam Beard has been called into the 23 but, matching the Boks with three locks, they need to remain competitive on the Boks' throw as they did in the first-half last week and/or not afford them many throws. It was penalties which killed the Lions last week.

Another Achilles heel was, of course, that the back three could not catch a cold. Liam Williams, a curious omission in the first two Tests, and Josh Adams should help to improve matters. But Duhan van der Merwe, over-pumped last week, looks sure to be targeted.

Back three

No less than not picking Johnny Sexton (imagine him there this week?) or calling him up instead of Marcus Smith, ever since Henry Slade and Garry Ringrose were both omitted from the original squad, a Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw combination looked the best available. Finally, as a last throw of the dice, they are reunited outside Dan Biggar and with this back three for the first time since the Japan game.

A tad like an identifiable game, the Lions’ selection policy appears to have been a little unsure, a little reactive.

The backline has a more in-form and potent look to it, but not having fired at all in the two Tests, the Lions will have to carve a try or two against the world’s best defence.

As Gregor Townsend admits, 20 points-plus will probably be required.

“We have got to do that through all aspects, whether it’s the set-piece, our defence getting us penalties and the ball back, but in particular our attack, creating and finishing off opportunities.”

Alas, another sore point from a week ago was the Lions lack of go-forward, when 105m gained from 85 carries remains the lowest metres-per-carry of any Tier 1 team at Test level since Opta began gathering statistics.

To get around the Boks’ fringe and midfield defence, the Lions will need go-forward ball, but for all Aki’s energy that appears to place a sizeable onus on him.

It could be tight, and in promoting the 37-year-old Morné Steyn the Boks appear to have a long-range penalty or drop goal in mind.

In promoting Finn Russell, who hasn't played in a month, the Lions are holding a wild card to chase the game, albeit they also have Conor Murray to close it out.

Either way, if it comes to it, that looks a big ask of Russell, as it does of these Lions.

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Cobus Reinach (Montpellier); Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks); Siya Kolisi (captain, Cell C Sharks),  Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers).

Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls), Vincent Koch (Saracens), Marco van Staden (Vodacom Bulls), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers), Morné Steyn (Vodacom Bulls), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers).

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones - captain (Ospreys, Wales); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland).

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland), Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Nic Berry (Australia)

TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa).

Head-to-head: Played 47, South Africa 24 wins, 6 draws, Lions 18 wins.

Betting: 8-13 South Africa, 20-1 Draw, 7-5 Lions. Handicap betting (Lions +3pts) Evens South Africa, 22/1 Draw, Evens Lions.

Forecast: South Africa to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times