British & Irish lions tour preview
Venue: Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
On TV: Live on Sky Sports
Necessity being the mother of invention after being restricted to just one outing together in 21 months, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have had to dip heavily into their front-line World Cup-winning team tonight. Hence to call them their previous incarnation, Emerging Springboks, would be a misnomer.
A dozen of the players who played against England in the World Cup final feature for the “As”, including nine of the starting line-up that night in Tokyo: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Faf de Klerk, Steven Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit, as well as Morne Steyn, who kicked the winning penalty to seal the series 12 years ago.
The pre-Test series mind games having started, "bring it on" was the gist of Warren Gatland's response, while at the same time rejecting Erasmus' entreaties for a sequel next Saturday as the Lions fulfil their obligations to play the Stormers.
Instead, a match against the Bulls this Saturday is being lined up for the Springboks in order to afford them some more match preparation when others, such as Handre Pollard, can be given a badly needed run-out. However, Siya Kolisi appears to be in a race against time for the first Test following a lengthy period in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.
That first Test is but 10 days away and so, for the vast majority of this Lions team and possibly all, this is their last chance to state their Test credentials. At least it will be the most meaningful game of the tour to date, and how.
As well as drawing 13-all with the Emerging Boks 12 years ago, the Lions won all six provincial games, and a fat lot of good it did them come the first Test.
So far the tourists have racked up 26 tries and 181 points, while conceding eight tries, in three wins. But this will be no romp, and it is the generous sprinkling of spice which the tour probably needed.
The level of physicality will likely make it look like a different sport and with the additional risk of injuries Gatland was assuredly correct in rejecting another meeting on Saturday. Two of these in advance of a three-Test series would be bordering on reckless for it will be widely felt Boks would like nothing more than to soften up the tourists.
“Emm, yeah, who knows,” said Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins when that was put to him yesterday. “At the end of the day the games are tough anyway, no matter which country you are touring.
"There was the Maori All Blacks four years ago and there's been Aussie 'As' and different things on other tours, the Emerging Springboks in '09 and South Africa 'A' tomorrow."
Conor Murray was quick to label this game the unofficial fourth Test before finally leading out the Lions for the first time since being named tour captain. With Finn Russell's tour in doubt, alongside the skipper Dan Biggar, he has another chance to nail down the "10" Test spot.
For the other two Irish starters, Bundee Aki can offer compelling evidence for his inclusion in the first Test matchday squad, and should it come to pass that Alun Wyn Jones does rejoin the squad, Iain Henderson needs a big game here against Etzebeth and Mostert.
Then again that’s true to varying extents for most of these Lions.
“I think the game will be very tight and very tough, and could go either way,” ventured Jenkins. “We will do our utmost to win and perform to the level we need to and give ourselves a good understanding of where we are at. It’s not the be-all and end-all. It’s all about the Test series. That’s what you generally get remembered for on Lions tours. Tomorrow is important, so is Saturday. We’ll be doing our utmost to win.”
In the heel of the hunt the Lions may have enough cohesion to shade it, although perhaps the Springboks will get more from it.
SOUTH AFRICA 'A': Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am (captain), Damian de Allende, Sbu Nkosi; Morné Steyn, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, Trevor Nyakane; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Marco van Staden, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Coenie Oosthuizen, Vincent Koch, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Rynhardt Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Damian Willemse, Kwagga Smith, Elton Jantjies.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Anthony Watson (Bath, England); Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester, Wales), Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland), Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Conor Murray - captain (Munster, Ireland); Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland); Josh Navidi (Cardiff, Wales), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Taulupe Faletau (Bath, Wales). Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England).
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).
Betting (Paddy Power): 5/4 South Africa 'A', 19/1 Draw, 4/6 Lions. Handicap odds (South Africa A + 3pts) 10/11 South Africa A, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Lions.
Forecast: Lions to win.