Lions Tour: Gatland eyeing aerial security with new XV

British and Irish Lions head coach explains the six changes made for series decider

Warren Gatland has made six changes to his British and Irish Lions team for the third Test against South Africa. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Warren Gatland has made six changes to his British and Irish Lions team for the third Test against South Africa. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

Warren Gatland has conceded that the British and Irish Lions’ woes in the air and their difficulties in the last 20 minutes prompted him to make half a dozen changes to the starting team for Saturday’s series decider in Cape Town.

In addition to calling up Bundee Aki and the Welsh duo of loosehead Wyn Jones and prolific winger Josh Adams in light of the Lions’ first tryless test since the 1980s for their Lions test debuts, Liam Williams, Ali Price and Ken Owens have also been named. Three other potential newcomers have been brought into the matchday 23, namely Adam Beard, Sam Simmonds and Finn Russell.

“We just felt that there were certain things from the weekend, particularly the aerial battle - we just got nothing out of that.

That was one of the areas.

“We were disappointed with the last 20 minutes when we gave away eight penalties, four of them we considered were pretty needless and ones that we shouldn’t have given away.

“We’re not complaining about the result. In fairness to South Africa they finished strongly. It was a tight game. We were happy with the first half and where we were. At 60 minutes on the clock there’s nothing in the game.”

Williams, who started all three tests at fullback in New Zealand and was a surprise omission from the second test, belatedly adds some badly needed aerial security. But many people will be amazed that whereas Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson have been dropped altogether (along with outside centre Chris Harris), the equally culpable Duhan van der Merwe is retained.

The South African-born Scottish winger seemed too pumped up for his own good when dumping Pieter-Steph du Toit on the shoulder after the latter had passed the ball and when subsequently receiving a yellow card for foot tripping Cheslin Kolbe. Thereafter van der Merwe struggled in the air and looked slow on the turn when balls were played in behind him.

“One of the definite strengths of Liam Williams is his aerial game and unfortunately with our whole back three last week we weren’t great in that area. We put a lot of balls down so that we felt that we needed to make a couple of changes there,” Gatland admitted.

Gatland coached four of the six players called into the starting team yet the wonder is that he didn’t opt for an all-Welsh back three by bringing in Louis Rees-Zammit as well.

Aki is sure to provide plenty of fresh energy in light of the 27-9 defeat in the second test and at the third time of asking he is paired with Robbie Henshaw in the midfield partnership that so caught Gatland’s eye in Ireland’s Six Nations win over England.

“They used (Damian) de Allende a lot off ‘9’ as a hit-up merchant so Bundee has been brought in there to try and negate that. But he’s also a good rugby player in terms of getting some go-forward. He’s not just a hit-up person, he’s got some really good footwork and offloading ability and the other thing is to give Robbie (Henshaw) an opportunity at test match level in that ‘13’ channel too.

“Bundee and Robbie have a pretty familiar combination and the midfield has always been bit of a debate for us. We looked at the physicality that Bundee brought in the ‘A’ game and the combination of those two working together.”

Familiarity was also a factor in naming the fit again Wyn Jones and Ken Owens alongside Tadhg Furlong in the frontrow while in rotating Ali Price and Conor Murray at scrumhalf again, Gatland said: “Ali did pretty well in the first test so we’ve swapped our nines around.”

Bench

Tadhg Beirne has been dropped from the bench, as have a couple of Lions stalwarts in Taulupe Faletau and England captain Owen Farrell, who just haven’t looked at their best on this tour. But it’s tough on Beirne, who has been restricted to 72nd and 70th minute cameos in the first two tests.

After being added to the squad when Alun Wyn Jones suffered his dislocated shoulder against Japan, the taller Beard (6’9” and 116kg) has been preferred on the bench to the more dynamic carrying and line-out calling of Iain Henderson (6’ 6 ½” and 118kg), who misses out entirely on the tests for the second series in a row.

Perhaps the most eye-catching selection is that of Russell over Farrell, which looks like a signal of intent if the Lions are in the mix entering the last 30 or 20 minutes.

“We definitely want to play some more rugby and we just didn’t get that opportunity in the second-half. Basically we got nothing from the air in the second half. South Africa kicked the ball 22 times in the second-half, we’ve only kicked it 10 times.

“We’ve tried to go out there, get some momentum and play some rugby, but we just never got into the game in that last 20 minutes or so.

“That’s why there have been the changes. Finn Russell comes on to the bench because he’s a little bit different. The two 10s are very good at what they do but are quite similar and he offers us something different.”

British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, 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 Rugby, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones - captain (Ospreys, Wales); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, 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 Rugby, Ireland), Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England).

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