Lions get things in order on the pitch after chaotic build-up to Sharks game

Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe score hat-tricks in big win in Johannesburg

Sharks 7 British & Irish Lions 54

Chaos may have been circling all around them but a welcome chance to actually play a game or rugby despite all manner of off-field disruptions proved therapeutic for Warren Gatland’s Lions.

That the match took place, having been delayed by an hour, was only confirmed an hour before kick-off after one Lions player and one member of the management had tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day

Those two, along with 12 close contacts – eight players and four staff members – were placed in isolation, which resulted in four changes to the backline and another four among the replacements. This became a 7-1 split with the promoted Finn Russell presumably the only other back not in isolation.


“Our whole mantra has been chaos, adapt and change,” said a relaxed Gatland before kick-off, noting that at least the pack was unchanged. “Finn will probably have to cover a number of positions.”

It was no surprise that with so many backs missing, the backs coach Gregor Townsend was not in attendance. Yet Townsend's influence was again apparent.

While much of their comfortable supremacy emanated from a solid lineout, a sporadically dominant scrum and a combination of strong carrying and rapid recycling, from the outset there was again a willingness to go deep in order to go wide and to look to keep the ball alive in the tackle.

Fittingly, seven of the Lions’ eight tries were scored by their outside backs, with the former South African under-20 winger Duhan van der Merwe and Josh Adams each scoring hat-tricks, meaning the latter now has eight in three Lions games. He’s a finisher.

There were good shifts by captain Iain Henderson, Adam Beard and Josh Navidi. Sam Simmonds was very dynamic, Ali Price was quick to the breakdown and inventive in the loose and Owen Farrell bossed the game as a late call-up at outhalf.

There was a good balance to the Bundee Aki-Elliot Daly midfield too but this all has to be taken in context.

The Sharks, who had nine Springboks squad players unavailable, had the occasional foray but were fairly toothless, especially in the first half, when their defence was disorganised and dishevelled in a manner the Springboks never will.

That said, they improved markedly after the break.

Adams, also one of those called in, required less than three minutes to sniff out his first try of the night after Farrell and Simmonds combined with successive offloads.

After Henderson and Beard combined for a choke-tackle turnover and more good work by Farrell, Simmonds’s classy pass enabled Van der Merwe to reacquaint himself with the try line on South African soil.

More offloading by Adams and Price released Daly from deep and led to Sharks winger Werner Kok rightly being binned for killing ruck ball and Van der Merwe added his second after Farrell spotted a completely unprotected backfield to perfectly judge his angled grubber.

Simmonds, legs pumping like pistons in a trademark burst, put the Lions on the offensive once more. Following a rumble by Luke Cowan-Dickie, who earlier failed to ground the ball successfully off a maul, Aki powered over for his first Lions try, Farrell making it 26-0 at the break.

Unlike the first half, the Lions left a try behind when Tom Curry knocked on and when Farrell had a pass picked off before Kok, Thaakir Abrahams and Jeremy Ward combined for James Ventre to beat Simmonds’s tackle for a try. Farrell departed and was later seen with ice on his abdomen, but seemed none too perturbed.

Suddenly the Lions players seemed to be visibly gulping the thin air while the Sharks came alive. But Kok went wildly off his feet to offer relief and Daly latched onto Russell’s clever chip before Adams pounced on loose ball for a poacher’s finish.

Adams’s counter and offload then gave Rees-Zammit a high speed cruise to the line from inside halfway.

Helped by replacements, the Lions put in a couple of big defensive sets before Rory Sutherland’s counter-ruck and Daly’s one-handed flicked pass served Van der Merwe his third try.

A big scrum by Tadhg Furlong and sprint by Rees-Zammit – although like Van der Merwe just before him he then left the field prematurely to protect a hamstring twinge to leave them with 13 men – led to the Lions going from the right touchline to the left, Adams completing his hat-trick after good passing by Daly, Beard and Toby Faletau.

Adams just might be making a case for the Test team.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Adams try, Farrell con 0-7; 7: Van der Merwe try, Farrell con 0-14; 26: Van der Merwe try 0-19; 40: Aki try, Farrell con 0-26; (half-time 0-26); 50: Venter try, Bosch con 7-26; 57: Adams try, Russell con 7-33; 61: Rees-Zammit try, Russell con 7-40; 74: Van der Merwe try, Russell con 7-47; 79: Adams, Russell con 7-54.

CELL C SHARKS: Manie Libbok; Werner Kok, Jeremy Ward, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams; Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Khwezi Mona, Fez Mbatha, Khutha Mchunu; Ruben van Heerden, Hyron Andrews; James Venter, Thembelani Bholi, Phepsi Buthelezi (capt).

Replacements:Reniel Hugo for Andrews (9 mins), Ntuthuko Mchunu for Mona, Wiehahn Herbst for K Mchunu (both 45),Kerron van Vuuren for Mbatha, Dylan Richardson for Bholi (both 56), JJ van der Mescht for Van Heerden (62), Anthony Volmink for Libbok (63), Grant Williams for Hendrikse (68).

Sinbinned: Kok (21-31 mins).

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales); Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester Rugby, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland, capt), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales); Josh Navidi (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) for Cowan-Dickie, Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland) for Vunipola, Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) for Fagerson, Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland) for Flood (all 57 mins), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) for Simmonds, Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales) (both 62), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) for Henderson (67), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland) for Navidi (71).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times