It's here at last – the start of a series that will determine whether the best of Britain and Ireland can overcome the world champions. Here's the gen on the match in Cape Town
South Africa v Lions preview of first Test
It doesn’t take a genius to understand the importance of winning the first match of a three-Test series. The British & Irish Lions, in all their long and illustrious history, have only won a series after losing the opener on two occasions – in 1899 and 1989, both times in Australia.
Of course, the Lions also salvaged a draw in New Zealand four years ago from 1-0 down. But they have never performed a rescue act in South Africa.
So the Lions must win the first Test at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday (5pm), that much is agreed. They have been dealt a helping hand in that objective by the disrupted preparation of their hosts. The hospitalisation of Georgia coach Levan Maisashvili, whose team played the Boks at the start of the month, is a reminder of the ongoing risk surrounding all the players.
The Boks field the same pack as that which played Georgia. But among the starting backs only Willie Le Roux and Handre Pollard have played a Test match since the 2019 World Cup final.
The Lions players have more rugby under their belt and will benefit from all the altitude training preceding their arrival in the Mother City. All three Tests will now be played at sea level, another tonic for the tourists.
The absence of spectators will affect both teams equally. Where the Springboks have an advantage is in the proven units of their team, with 11 of their starters this Saturday having also started the triumphant RWC 2019 final in Japan.
In contrast, as statistician Russ Petty informed us among his blizzard of Lions data, Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly is the only combination in the Lions XV that has previously started together on this tour. The selected XV is an act of faith by Warren Gatland and his coaches.
Gatland revealed that the coaches found unanimity on only seven of the 15 starters. Many of us picked our own XV after last weekend’s final provincial match and it’s gratifying for this writer that 11 of his picks have made the cut. Full-back, scrum-half, blindside and one of the locks were the points of difference. Foolishly, I had Alun Wyn Jones on the bench.
Duhan van der Merwe’s selection ahead of top try-scorer Josh Adams has sparked plenty of debate. Yet the Western Cape-born Scot has proved a handful at every level, beating 29 defenders on this tour. He has scored eight tries in his ten Tests.
This will be his greatest challenge yet and it’s a gamble of sorts, even without the red-hot cauldron that usually accompanies a Lions Test and which could unnerve a relative Test novice. But it is good to see the Lions management being bold. They have picked players who will attack the Boks, not just players best suited to handle what is thrown back at them.
Ali Price will give the Lions a brisker tempo than Conor Murray would have done. Stuart Hogg is not as safe under a high ball as Liam Williams but a devastating attacker. Daly offers real gas at 13 and can bring his left-footed kicking game to bear in myriad ways. Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie brings a bit of everything – carries, turnovers, chop tackles – alongside his scrummaging prowess. The Cornishman will be in South Africa’s face.
The Lions reason that rewards will come from a fast game with high ball-in-play time. They want to tire out a Boks team that is undercooked because of the recent impact of Covid – hence all those tapped penalties in the South Africa A game. Yet they also have forwards who can go toe to toe with the world champions. You want an arm wrestle? No problem.
That appears to be the thinking. The proof of the pudding will be clear for all to see on Saturday. The Springboks will be far more dangerous one week on, so the Lions must hope they can strike first blood in the series. Failure this weekend would give them a Table Mountain-sized obstacle to climb.
What’s the team news?
The leaking of the Lions team to a newspaper, presumably via a player agent(s), brought the official announcement forward by a day. It brought to mind the England leaks at RWC 2015 and irked Gatland. From now on he will announce the team straight after telling the players.
As well as points touched on above, the Lions have reinstalled Alun Wyn Jones as lock and captain after his 27-minute return from a dislocated shoulder against the Stormers. He will join the elite list of those to play ten or more Lions Tests, and is the first in the pro era.
MOST LIONS TESTS
Willie John McBride 17
Dickie Jeeps 13
Mike Gibson 12
Graham Price 12
Gareth Edwards 10
Alun Wyn Jones 9
Jack Conan gets the nod from Sam Simmonds and Taulupe Faletau at No 8 – the latter was a constant throughout the 2017 series. And Courtney Lawes gets the six shirt ahead of Tadhg Beirne in a decision that might have almost been down to the toss of a coin. The Saints forward won his previous two Lions caps from off the bench in New Zealand.
The management picked their strongest front-row scrummagers, exactly as it should be. A faltering scrum can lose you the series – just think Lions 2009 and the RWC 2019 final.
A Lions cap beckoned, therefore, for Wyn Jones (“I think Wyn has been held up over the line more than any other person in world rugby history on this tour,” said Ken Owens) but he was ruled out a few hours before the first Test after picking up a minor shoulder injury in training so Rory Sutherland was promoted to the starting line-up, with Mako Vunipola coming onto the bench.
That brought the number of Scots in the Lions Test XV to four, with another, Hamish Watson, on the bench. It’s great to see.
And those unlucky to miss out, Gloucester’s Chris Harris being one, will be well aware that match-day squads can differ wildly from one match to the next.
After so many six-two splits on the bench, both teams have reverted to the traditional three backs. Injury, retirement and recuperation account for the minor differences between this weekend’s Boks XV and the one that walloped England in Japan. All but two of the match-day squad were part of that winning campaign.
Flanker Siya Kolisi, wing Makazole Mapimpi and prop Ox Nché all make the team sheet after completing their isolation periods in Johannesburg.
The decision to start props Nché and Trevor Nyakane, and leave Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe on the bench, is an intriguing subplot. Kitshoff and Malherbe are seen as stronger scrummagers, so the Lions’ SOS – Vunipola, Owens and Sinckler – can expect to have their hands full if and when they make their entrance during the game’s third quarter.
The formidable Duane Vermeulen is unavailable, perhaps for the whole series, because of an ankle injury. In his absence, Kwagga Smith‘s selection at No 8, alongside Nché, Nyakane and Franco Mostert, increases the mobility of a pack that the Lions intend to give the runaround.
Fly-half Handré Pollard, who has been named vice-captain, will win his 50th cap.
What have the coaches said?
Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “I asked the coaches to come along with their 23s and they were all different. We all had to compromise. I know a lot of people think it’s the team that I select. It’s never been the way with Wales and the Lions. It’s important we all have an input.
“Not one coach got the 23 they had come along to the meeting with and that’s credit to the players. It’s a great place to be in because there’s so many players putting their hand in.”
On Josh Adams: “He had an emotional week (after the birth of his first child). And then on the Saturday, with the emotion and a couple of knocks he took, he was reasonably quiet in that game (against the Stormers). That was possibly the deciding factor.
“Duhan has scored some really good tries on this tour as well, beaten a lot of defenders. That was by far the toughest call for us in terms of who we picked in the back three. Lots of other positions as well. Any one of the three hookers could have started.”
On the Springboks: “We haven’t conceded a lineout maul try or pick-and-go try. If we can stop them from dominating in those areas, they’ll have to go to something else.
“They will kick a lot. There are possibly 20-odd kicks in a normal International, you can expect up to 40-odd against South Africa. At times we need to make sure if those kicks are from them or us, we get the ball back. But you don’t want to force things and lose patience.”
DID YOU KNOW? Joe Marler has forecast a 24-24 draw in the first Test. Sporting Index have predicted that the Lions will outscore South Africa 71 points to 66 across the series
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber: “The fact that most of the players participated in the World Cup means they know one another well on and off the field. And as coaches we know what they have to offer after having worked with most of them for several years.”
On the front row: “We could have gone with Kitshoff starting and Ox (Nché) off the bench, but Ox brings good line speed and good dynamism. He is a loosehead that can chase with loose forwards in a kicking game.
“There is a specific role that we want Ox to achieve for us and it’s the same with Trevor (Nyakane) and then we’ll bring on Kitsie and Frans Malherbe in the second half. They (the replacement props) have a specific role and skill-set that they have to bring to the party.”
On Kwagga Smith: “Duane (Vermeulen) is a guy who could get and stop momentum. Kwagga does the same sort of thing for us, just in a different way. He gets momentum with his evasive skill-set, which he learned in sevens. Even there, he had to deal with big Fijian players.
“People also forget that in 2019, when we played against New Zealand in New Zealand, Kwagga was part of that team and partnered up with Duane when Siya Kolisi was injured. So it’s the nice thing about Kwagga, he actually covers six, seven and eight.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Saturday 24 July, Cape Town Stadium
The match kicks off at 5pm (BST) and will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, with highlights to follow on All4. Or you can listen to live commentary on talkSPORT.
There’s a new team of officials for the Test series. The referee is Australian Nic Berry, 37, a former Queensland scrum-half. His playing career was ended by concussion in 2012 whilst playing for Premiership club Wasps.
Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand) and Mathieu Raynal (France) are the assistant referees ahead of their time in the middle later in the series.
New Zealand’s Brendon Pickerill was due to have been the Television Match Official (TMO) for all three Tests but he has withdrawn because of pandemic-related travel problems. South Africa’s Marius Jonker has replaced him, a decision that has rightly been slammed by Gatland because of the issues surrounding neutrality.
The TMO is a critical figure because some huge calls are inevitable across the series. Jonker’s appointment is unfair on him and both teams, and World Rugby must surely make a change for the remaining Tests to avoid potential embarrassment.
What are the line-ups?
South Africa: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi (capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse.
Lions: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tadhg Beirne, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Liam Williams.
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