British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland hasn’t ran away from tough selection decisions. Taulupe Faletau, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George have all been excluded from the squad. In come Jack Conan, Duhan van der Merwe, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ali Price, all of whom have been rewarded for their form on this tour. Alun Wyn Jones is captain, capping a remarkable return from a shoulder dislocation barely a month ago.
British and Irish Lions reward form
Cowan-Dickie and Conan rewarded
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s meteoric rise over the last few weeks was capped by shunting Ken Owens and Jamie George from the starting jersey. He was comfortably the most dominant forward on the pitch against the DHL Stormers and deserves a start against South Africa. It is not that George or Owens have played badly, it is just that Cowan-Dickie has been outstanding all tour.
The same can be said for the selection of Jack Conan over Faletau. Conan is the bolter and his all-action performances in the loose and defensively have leapfrogged him over Faletau. The Welsh ‘number 8′ will come again on this tour but he has been quiet by his own high standards and pays the price for that.
Courtney Lawes will add some serious ballast upfront and a decent lineout option in the battle of the forwards. Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson are very useful additions to the Lions’ bench.
No room for sentiment
Ali Price has comfortably been the best number nine for the Lions in South Africa. Conor Murray finds himself being demoted as captain and then jettisoned to the bench. It is tough on the Munster scrum-half, but he and Owen Farrell struggled in the halves against South Africa A – failing their auditions so too speak. Murray will play a key role off the bench particularly if the Lions needs to close out the game. Owen Farrell finds a spot on the bench with his goal-kicking and leadership highly important in the second half.
Liam Williams was another surprise non-starter given his exploits in the 2017 tour to New Zealand. Duhan van der Merwe’s power and try-scoring ability pushes him past Williams and Josh Adams. For Adams, he can consider himself very unlucky not to be in the match-day squad. One would think that South Africa will look to exploit van der Merwe’s inexperience at this level particularly under the high ball and in defence.
Daly and Henshaw partnership
An interesting selection is that of Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly partnering up in the centres. They went well together against the DHL Stormers with Henshaw’s defensive organisation complementing Daly’s attacking intent. Daly has excelled in the number 13 jersey and his 2017 experiences against the All Blacks can only help on Saturday.
What will also benefit the Lions with Daly’s selection is his versatility in the backline. He can cover on both wings and at fullback. Daly also has a howitzer boot which will be useful at Newlands.
Vermeulen absence a blow for the Springboks
As predicted the Springboks have picked most of the team who won the World Cup. One glaring omission is the loss of the injured Duane Vermeulen at ‘number 8’. He was magnificent for South Africa in the final and he will be a big loss. The British and Irish Lions must guard against complacency though as Kwagga Smith, his replacement is a very useful deputy.
Smith bucks the trend of traditional backrowers from South Africa. He is lighter, quicker and has the brain of a playmaker. His ability to score tries is on par with his mate Malcolm Marx. If either Marx or Smith sniff the try line they invariably score themselves or set up a teammate. Go to the Barbarians/New Zealand match in 2017 to see the speed of Smith.
Kolbe looms as a major threat
Cheslin Kolbe’s star continues to shine and he is the major threat to the Lions. He showed once again what he can do when starring for South Africa A last week. Somehow the Lions have to shut down his space and therefore his influence on the game. The selection of van der Merwe and Watson might chisel an opening by challenging Kolbe in the air. But, if Ali Price and Dan Biggar do not have their respective kicking radars on, Kolbe will tear them to pieces.
Form goes out of the window
So much will depend on who wins the forward battle. It is imprinted in the DNA of a South African rugby player – they rarely lose the forward confrontation. Like in 1997, the British and Irish Lions have to box clever with the Springbok pack. They will have to get their basics like the lineout and scrum right for starters. Tom Curry and Maro Itoje need to legally be all over Faf de Klerk. Above all their discipline needs to be spot on. South Africa will strangle the life out of the Lions if they are given free territory and possession. And they will need to run and run. The amount of work that the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Tim Rodber and Richard Hill got through was staggering.
Yes, the Lions have scored a bucket load of tries on tour. However, the opposition has been inferior which hasn’t given the Lions a true indicator of where they are at. As soon as South Africa A came along the outlook was very different for Gatland’s men. That said, South Africa A was running out of steam in the second half and should have been overrun by the Lions. It makes this first test match absolutely fascinating to guess on.
The Lions have pace and power in the back three which could eventually tell on South Africa with the kicking duel between the two sides. Equally Cheslin Kolbe is pure x-factor and if he gets decent possession then he could be the difference between the two sides.
The British and Irish Lions to take a high-scoring encounter by a score. 37-32.
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