Lions expected to open their campaign in convincing style

Weakest of the local franchise opposition should not unduly trouble Gatland’s tourists

Emirates Lions v British & Irish Lions, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg. Kick-off: 6pm local time (5pm Irish). On TV: Live on Sky Sports.

At face value this one could prove trickier for commentators than the British & Irish Lions. The Gauteng Lions appear to be the weakest of the franchise opposition which the tourists will face on their eight-match tour.

Not so long ago they were the kingpins of the South African regional sides, as they reached successive Super Rugby finals in 2016, 2017 and 2018. But the franchise has fallen on hard times and their squad is unrecognisable from those years.

The Gauteng outfit finished last of the South African quartet in the recent Rainbow Cup with just a solitary victory in six games – albeit one of them was cancelled and that win was the Bulls, who topped the standings.


All that said and done, with only one player called into the Springboks squad, for the home players this will be their only shot at the famous red shirt on this tour and thus the game of a lifetime. So they are sure to be fired up and physical.

“We have had a reasonably good look at them and they are going to be strong up front,” maintained Warren Gatland.

“For us the first game on tour is always difficult, just getting up to speed. They are probably the least affected of the five teams, or four teams, in terms of the number of players they would have lost to the Springbok squad.

“They are going to be fairly settled and strong and for a lot of these players it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to play against the Lions. They are going to be incredibly motivated to want to go and play well and we understand there’s not going to be any crowds but that’s not going to take away from their desire to want to be the first team to try and beat the Lions on tour.”

The most acid of the tourists' test credentials could well be up front, where the pack has a strong English core. In all likelihood Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes could all be in the Test '23' and for Jonny Hill this is an opportunity to demonstrate why his bulk and horse power were chosen for this tour given the second-row power the Boks are liable to possess.

Gatland clearly has a liking for a big, physical, lock cum blindside in the mould of Lawes, a powerful ball-carrying number '8' like Taulupe Faletau and a true openside, ala Hamish Watson.

Faletau is one of Gatland’s favourites from his Welsh days and he has started the Lions last four Test matches, although his selection after a lengthy stint off the bench last week suggests the need for him to achieve sharper match fitness.

Devastating effect

The Finn Russell-Owen Farrell 10-12 axis looks particularly interesting. Four years ago Gatland and co opted for a Jamie Roberts-type, big carrying inside centre in Ben Te'o, which didn't work.

They were far more effective when belatedly promoting Johnny Sexton for the second and third Tests with Farrell alongside him as a second playmaker. It worked to devastating effect in the second Test, notably in the second try which Faletau finished off in the corner.

While the tourists will have to match the Springboks physically as much as possible, ultimately their best chance of winning the series will be to outsmart the world champions rather than outmuscle them. The dual playmaker selection looks the better option in that regard, at the very least as a change-up.

They will also need X-factor, and this may be where Louis Rees-Zammit comes into the equation. The electric, jet-heeled Welsh winger is surfing the crest of a wave this year and, with his stated ambition to have an impact akin to Ronaldo whenever the ball comes his way, has all the credentials to give the tourists a point of difference on this odyssey.

In a sense it could be something of a no-win game for the players involved today. Win in a struggle and it may not reflect well on them and yet the more they pull away the more the quality of the opposition will be questioned.

The scale of the anticipated tourists' win may not repeat the scale of the 74-10 thrashing they inflicted on the home side in 2009, when the provincial sides were weakened by the absence of their Springboks players. That was also the day when Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll kick-started their potent and supremely well balanced midfield combination.

Nonetheless, Gatland’s men should still win comfortably and hopefully, touch wood, emerge unscathed.

SIGMA LIONS: EW Viljoen; Jamba Ulengo, Manuel Rass, Burger Odendaal, Rabz Maxwane; Jordan Hendrikse, Dillon Smit; Nathan McBeth, PJ Botha, Ruan Dreyer, Ruben Schoeman, Reinhard Nothnagel, Sbusiso Sangweni, Vincent Tshituka, Francke Horn (capt).

Replacements: Jaco Visagie, Sti Sithole, Carlu Sadie, Ruhan Straeuli, Emmanuel Tshituka, Morne van den Berg, Fred Zeilinga, Dan Kriel.

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Scotland, capt); Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Chris Harris (Scotland), Owen Farrell (England), Josh Adams (Wales); Finn Russell (Scotland), Ali Price (Scotland); Wyn Jones (Wales), Jamie George (England), Kyle Sinckler (England), Maro Itoje (England), Jonny Hill (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales).

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Elliot Daly (England).

Referee: AJ Jacobs (South Africa)

Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

TMO: Stuart Berry (South Africa)

Betting (Paddy Powers): 14/1 Emirates Lions, 80/1 Draw, 1/33 B&I Lions.

Handicap odds (Emirates Lions +27 pts) 10/11 Emirates Lions, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 B&I Lions.

Forecast: Commanding away win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times