Stuttering Lions must attack the Springboks to win 2021 Castle series

Stuttering Lions must attack the Springboks to win 2021 Castle series
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The British and Irish Lions have barely fired a shot in attack in two tests against the Springboks. With the 2021 Castle series at 1-1 and with everything on the line for both teams, Warren Gatland must make some proactive changes.

In his words, this is a Cup Final and if the Lions adopt a similar ‘safety and contain’ strategy, they will lose. Having scored tries for fun against admittedly inferior oppositions, the Lions are in danger of playing themselves out of form in attack. Gatland is not afraid of making tough selection calls and there are a few he needs to consider.

Willams and Adams to come in

It was a horrible afternoon for the Lions back three of Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson last Saturday. Hogg in particular struggled with the South African bombardment thus, the Lions management will consider Liam Williams at full-back. It is tough on Hogg as he has the kind of running game to cause the Springbok defence problems. However, Williams is traditionally strong under the high ball and the Lions badly need some security at the back.

The same can be said for the unlucky Josh Adams, who has had an excellent tour thus far. Eight tries in four games is a testament to that and the Lions will need to finish what limited chances might come their way. Watson did not have his greatest day but his footwork, power and pace mean he should keep his place on the wing.

Russell or Smith must be on the bench

Dan Biggar should remain at fly-half for the third test of the 2021 Castle series as he has the ability to switch game plans. But, it is crucial that either Marcus Smith or Finn Russell should be primed and ready in the second half. The Lions were crying out for some x-factor off the bench during the second half last week. If Russell is fit he should get his opportunity. Given the nature of the first two games, the final twenty minutes has a massive say in who comes out on top.

It may well be that Owen Farrell and Russell go together on the Lions bench. Farrell provides cover in the centres and at fly-half especially if the game needs closing out. It is not beyond Gatland to perhaps partner Farrell with Biggar, shunting Chris Harris out of the side.

Price to start over Murray if Lions want to attack

It is such a tight call to choose between the solidity of Conor Murray over the more adventurous Ali Price. Murray will probably start and he did create the kick that Robbie Henshaw should have scored off in the second test. It would be refreshing to see the ball get out quicker to the Lions backs and Price is better suited to that style of rugby.

A lot will depend on whether Gatland changes Biggar with Finn Russell. If Russell or Marcus Smith come in then Ali Price would be the ideal partner. A left-field pick is Gareth Davies who has an excellent try-scoring record and could also offer some pace and innovation. We haven’t mentioned Owen Farrell starting in place of Biggar. Farrell is a test match animal who will not shirk the enormity of this occasion even though he is below his best.

Simmonds and Watson come into the equation

Sam Simmonds and Hamish Watson should come into the equation for the third test. The Lions simply must find ways of breaking up the South African defence. It won’t happen with a kick/chase game plan and therefore players like Simmonds could be a viable option. The reality is that Simmonds would be a backup off the bench. Gatland will probably bring in the experienced Taulupe Faletau in place of Jack Conan at number eight.

Tom Curry has done little wrong all tour but neither has Hamish Watson. They are such similar players especially with their respective work rates and Watson could come in with Curry reverting to the bench.

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That leaves Tadhg Beirne and Sam Simmonds as the other options. Beirne is a workhorse, an excellent jackler and lineout option. However, can he split a defence open as good as the Springboks? This is why Sam Simmonds must be considered. This could be his time to finally show what he can do on the biggest of stages. At the very least he should be on the bench.

The front five is unlikely to be changed too much. Wyn Jones if fit should start as the Lions scrum creaked badly against a fired-up Springbok pack in the second half last weekend.

Jones and Itoje need to douse Etzebeth’s influence

Despite the quality of rugby being pretty poor in this series, a ‘winner takes it all stage’ is the perfect ending. For the rugby purists, this is the ideal situation. Every individual battle has huge significance to the end result. The clash between Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones and Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert once again will set the tone.

Etzebeth’s influence cannot be underestimated. He is the enforcer and leader that the Springboks have needed in the last two tests. Physically he is a beast and Itoje has had his hands full in dealing with him. But Itoje has stood up to the challenge but he needs help from his comrades. And the visitors cannot be drawn into ‘handbags’ when provoked.

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Mostert is the quieter of the Springbok second row boiler room but his influence was crucial in the second test. Like all South African forwards, Mostert can blast, jump and gallop when a rare chance arises. Etzebeth and Mostert are an excellent combination, with the very talented Lood de Jager on standby.

Alun Wyn Jones needs to be even better than his usual impeccable self. He needs to fire up his forwards and lead from the front on Saturday. One of Jones’s first messages should be discipline and to stop the soft penalties.

Verdict: All out attack or fail for 2021 Castle Series honours

The Lions tried to contain the Springboks last week and it worked for fifty minutes. It was never going to be enough against the World Champions. They were far too risk-averse and negative during the second test. They have the artillery to win this series if they are brave enough to throw the ball around a bit and pick the right players to do it. The set-piece and the basics will still be crucial but the ball needs to get to the back three and they need some space to work in. Finn Russell and Marcus Smith are the men to consider.

Gatland has an incredible record as the Lions coach and most of what he has done in South Africa has been spot on. He has to have the strength of his convictions to bring in a more attacking game plan. There is no question that the Lions can win this 2021 Castle series but it won’t be by just a kick and chase strategy. Heroes can be made like the 1997 vintage on Saturday but the Springboks now have the momentum.

 

 

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