Lions can pull through once they keep Springboks in their sights

Warren Gatland's selection seems geared towards a high-tempo game

 Warren Gatland, the British & Irish Lions  head coach, talking to his team during captain’s run at Cape Town Stadium, South Africa, on Friday. Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

Warren Gatland, the British & Irish Lions head coach, talking to his team during captain’s run at Cape Town Stadium, South Africa, on Friday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

First Test: South Africa v British & Irish Lions,  Cape Town Stadium, Saturday, 5pm - Live on Sky Sports

Finally then. At various junctures in the past three weeks even that much was in doubt. It seems somehow fitting that the teams will be led out by Alun Wyn Jones, aka Lazarus, and the inspirational Siya Kolisi’s recovery from Covid.

The phoney war is over too, and while the Lions will retain misgivings about Rassie Erasmus continuing in his role as water boy cum messenger, maybe this time with some water, and a South African TMO, they at least have focused the spotlight on Marius Jonker’s influence.

Alas, no seas of green and red, but as the Lions fans have effectively neutralised home advantage previously, this probably won’t have any bearing on the outcome. Nor, most likely, on the way the teams set about each other. In that sense it will be like a full house.

Intriguingly there’s virtually no form to go on, and the bookies can barely split them. The Springboks have had the more fractured build-up. They are tried and tested to a point, having played just one test since the World Cup final, albeit this pack started that game against Georgia.

So Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have resorted to 11 of their World Cup final XV, including the entire backline. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Faf de Klerk, Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux will work the leather off the ball. They’ll look for set-piece superiority, build scoreboard pressure and try to take the Lions to places they don’t want to go, force them to make decisions under pressure and then pounce.

The difference with these Boks is that they have varnished their Afrikaaner power game with some inventiveness.

Brilliance

Heading toward a third World Cup final without any tries, it was the off-the-cuff brilliance of Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, and then Cheslin Kolbe, which sealed the deal with quick-witted tries off a kick return and a ruck turnover. Both tries in the A game came from Lions kicks, and will have served as a reminder to the tourists of the danger these Boks pose in transition.

Opposing Kolbe will be Duhan van der Merwe. Considered too small, Kolbe had to make it in Toulouse, whereas van der Merwe is the prototype Afrikaaner winger who, ironically, had to move to Scotland.

For the Lions new combinations abound except in midfield, where Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly had just shy of an hour together last week.

There is a nagging feeling that the coaching ticket hasn’t been fully aligned in coming up with this selection, yet no midweek game has afforded them a week-long run at a first Test for the first time ever.

Today’s performance and result will hinge to a large degree on the coaches’ work.

Both the first Test 12 years ago and the World Cup final were largely shaped by Tendai Mtawarira beasting Phil Vickery and Dan Cole, but how much differently might those games have panned out had Adam Jones started the former and Kyle Sinckler not been forced off inside two minutes of the latter?

Mtawarira believes the 25-year-old Ox Nché can become a legend. He is remarkably quick and dynamic for a man of 114kg, while Leinster fans might remember him for a late high shoulder charge on Fergus McFadden in 2019 when playing for the Cheetahs at the RDS which prompted only a yellow card from Nigel Owens, but an eight-week ban from a disciplinary committee.

There’s a feeling in South Africa that Nché has received the best of scrum coaching and at 5’ 8” he can get under the six-footer Tadhg Furlong, who is 119kg, and trouble him at scrum time.

Superb carrier

But aside from being a superb carrier and distributor, Furlong is a proven Test match animal at scrum time nearing the peak of his powers. While the Boks do have an experienced back-up front-row, so too do the Lions.

Maro Itoje has a big role calling the lineouts but presuming the presence of Courtney Lawes provides some insurance there, the collisions and the breakdown could be where the match is won or lost. It often is.

It will be interesting to see whether the Lions also adopt a kicking game ala Wales in the World Cup semi-final, but the selection of Ali Price points to the looking for a high tempo, and also outflank that blitz defence and find the edges. That’s where they look most likely to win it.

Not for the first time, these Springboks are playing for a country under siege, and strengthened emotional bonds can take teams far places, especially among a squad drawn from years of playing together. Think of Munster against Glasgow in October 2016.

But the Springboks will surely need to lead from the front, for catch-up is not their forte, and you have to wonder what physical toll Covid has taken on them.

Perhaps instructively, the As failed to score a point in the second half against the Lions and the Bulls, and the Lions’ fitness levels have looked increasingly strong on this tour. The longer this game is in the balance the better their chances of seeing it through.

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), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Ox Nché (Cell C Sharks), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat); Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo).

Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears), Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers), Elton Jantjies (Pau), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers).

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales, capt); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England), Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales).

Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)

Head-to-head: Played 46, South Africa 23 wins, 6 draws, Lions 17 wins.

Betting (Paddy Power): 5/6 South Africa, 16/1 Draw, 11/10 Lions. Handicap odds (Lions + 1pt) Evens South Africa, 22/1 Draw, Evens Lions.

Forecast: Lions to win.

The British & Irish Lions

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