Plenty for Warren Gatland to mull as Lions prepare for Springboks test

Tourists look set to spend the rest of summer in Cape Town as the Test series looms large

Josh Adams challenges the Stormers’ Juan de Jongh during Saturday’s final warm-up game. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

Josh Adams challenges the Stormers’ Juan de Jongh during Saturday’s final warm-up game. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

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Stormers 3 British & Irish Lions 49

A report in the South African Sunday Times has said that a decision has been agreed between the South African Rugby Union and the British & Irish Lions to move the second and third Tests from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This means that the Lions will remain in Cape Town for the remainder of the tour and playing all three Tests at sea level assuredly enhances their chances of winning the series.

Back in 1997, the Lions won the series by dint of wins in Cape Town and Durban before a loss in Johannesburg. Although the Lions won the third Test in Johannesburg 12 years ago, by then the series had been decided due to defeats in Durban and Pretoria.

When revealing that this was a distinct probability over a week ago, Warren Gatland could scarcely conceal that this would afford the Lions a better opportunity to win the series.

The Lions head coach arrives at this pivotal week of the tour with his squad in better shape than he could have foreseen a few troubled weeks ago with a relatively clean bill of health and more selectorial conundrums than would have been the case at the same juncture on the last two tours.

“There are going to be some tight calls with regard to the make-up of the back three,” admitted Gatland. “Also the loose forwards and how that mix is going to look. They’re probably the tightest calls that we’ve got to make in terms of getting the balance right in those positions.”

All six of the outside backs are genuinely in contention. That Josh Adams was withdrawn before the hour mark may be an indication his previous try-scoring exploits have earned him one of the wing spots, while Anthony Watson looks a strong bet too.

The luckless Stuart Hogg probably didn’t do enough here though and given Liam Williams’ credit in the bank from four years ago as well as his form and aerial ability, he appears the favourite for the fullback position.

The phoney war having finally been completed, the war of words between the two coaches is likely to continue in the build-up to the first Test, all the more so in the absence of any midweek games.

In response to Gatland suggesting Faf de Klerk should have received a red card rather than a yellow in the South Africa A v Lions game last Wednesday, Rassie Erasmus took to twitter to highlight high hits by Owen Farrell in the same game.

“It was a bit of a surprise going to Twitter but you’ve got to accept these things,” said Gatland. “It adds to the occasion, atmosphere and tension building up to the test series. It’s all a bit of fun, a game within a game.”

Ultimately, Saturday’s final warm-up game was another fairly facile win over outclassed opposition which again underlined that when the Test squad members are away, and given the estimated 600 players abroad at various levels, the provincial sides in South Africa have nothing like the strength in depth of their New Zealand counterparts.

Insomuch the starting line-up could state their case, the Exeter and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie probably offered the most compelling evidence for inclusion in the match-day ‘23’ of the first Test, albeit the hooking department is as competitive as any other position.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to ignore Cowan-Dickie’s high energy, defensive line speed, chop tackling, carrying and accurate darts, even if Gatland and co see that as best employed off the bench.

The same can be said of Tadhg Beirne, who showcased his mobility and skill on the ball in equal measure against the Stormers, with Jack Conan not far behind.

Tadgh Furlong looked like a player peaking nicely for the first Test and while Gatland was less than effusive about Robbie Henshaw’s return, getting through an hour unscathed should be a springboard to a strong week’s training.

Once again the impact of the bench understandably pleased Gatland, with Mako Vunipola, Zander Fagerson, Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit all helping the Lions to pull clear of the wilting Stormers. Alun Wyn Jones also put his left shoulder to the test in his 20 minute audition, and having been re-instated as tour captain he’s liable to be in the ‘23’ as well.

“The captain (for the first Test) will depend on the side we name. Alun Wyn has come back into that role (as tour captain),” explained Gatland. “Conor (Murray) is comfortable, he stepped in to do it and Alu Wyn was named as tour captain before. It’s brilliant that he has come back and Conor, he’s the first to admit that it was more than comfortable for Alun Wyn to come back.

“It’s a measure of him (Murray) as a person as well. He wasn’t prepared to give up his bedroom suite though - he got the captain’s bedroom suite.”

Scoring sequence: 20 mins Swiel pen 3-0; 28 mins Beard try, Smith con 3-7; 34 mins Cowan-Dickie try, Smith con 3-14; 40 mins Hill try, Smith 3-21; (half-time 3-21); 50 mins Conan try, Smith con 3-28; 68 mins Fagerson try, Smith con 3-35; 74 mins Rees-Zammit try, Smith con 3-42; 78 mins Simmonds try, Smith con 3-49.

Stormers: Sergeal Petersen; Leolin Zas, Juan de Jongh, Dan du Plessis, Edwill van der Merwe; Tim Swiel, Godlen Masimla; Leon Lyons, JJ Kotze, Neethling Fouche, Ernst van Rhyn (captain), JD Schickerling, Nama Xaba, Johan du Toit, Evan Roos. Replacements: Andre-Hugo Venter for Kotze, Abner van Reenen for Swiel (both 48 mins), Marcel Theunissen for Xaba, Thomas Bursey for Zas (both 62 mins), Dian Bleuler for Lyons, Justin Basson for Roos, Cornel Smit for du Plessis (all 66 mins), Lee-Marvin Mazibuko for Fouche (67 mins).

British & Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg (capt, Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Marcus Smith (Harlequins, England), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh, Scotland), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland). Replacements: Jamie George (Saracens, England) for Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for Sutherland (both 49 mins), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) for Furlong, Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales) for Beard (both 54 mins), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England) for Conan, Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales) for Price, Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland) for Henshaw, Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester Rugby, Wales) for Adams (all 58 mins).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

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