Both tourists and Springboks are set to head into Test series undercooked
Opinion: Lions need more competitive fixtures
If anything illustrated the chaos of the lead-up to the first midweek game of the British & Irish Lions 2021 tour it was the shirts.
Louis Rees-Zammit had the ‘10’ on his back against the Sharks while Owen Farrell had no number at all, the young Welsh winger clearly of a more similar build to the man originally selected at fly-half, Dan Biggar, than the England captain.
Both players were among the four late changes to the starting back-line as two Covid cases in the Lions camp – one player, one coach – saw a further eight players isolating. Another four changes were required on the bench, with Finn Russell the only other back available.
Given that this match was confirmed as going ahead less than two hours before kick-off, the mad dash the Lions had from their hotel, all the changes and the fact some players were facing their second match at altitude in just a few days, you could have forgiven the tourists for looking a little off the pace early on. Instead, it was the opposite.
It took Josh Adams less than three minutes to add yet another try to his Lions tally, dipping low to collect a Rees-Zammit offload and run over. Adams has now started at 14, 11 and 15 in the Lions’ three matches to date – and he’s looked adept wherever picked in the back three, taking his try tally to eight in three games.
As the clock ticked past six minutes, Duhan van der Merwe had scored the Lions’ second try – and he had another before the half-hour mark. Bundee Aki’s effort just before half-time, coupled with Farrell’s three conversions, made it 26-0 to the tourists.
It had been one-way traffic, and was similar in the second half as the Lions ran in a further five tries, both Adams and van der Merwe completing hat-tricks, for a 54-7 win.
Therein lies the problem.
After Saturday’s 56-14 victory over Sigma Lions, Warren Gatland reflected on how the Lions had been “underdone” going into the 2009 Test series against the Springboks because of the lack of competitive fixtures in the build-up. It looks like being the same in 2021, although this time the Boks may be equally ill-prepared.
The franchises are without their Springboks stars as South Africa have selected a larger squad than normal due to Covid, while some of the teams are also missing those representing the sevens and U20 national sides.
It all means the Lions are facing far weaker opposition ahead of the Test series than they did in New Zealand four years ago. Before taking on the world champions, the Lions need to be tested, to be stretched, to see who can handle the pressure and even thrive under it – and who can’t. That is not happening.
Can Gatland and his coaches learn enough about the players in these lop-sided contests to determine who is the best fit for the Test team? They’ll have to.
As well as the opposition, there’s the number of matches. This is the shortest-ever Lions tour, with just eight matches in South Africa and the Japan fixture before departure, and the pandemic is threatening to reduce that number further.
Saturday’s Bulls match has already been postponed because of Covid cases at the Pretoria-based franchise and while tour organisers are trying to find alternative opponents for this weekend, will anyone be available and be able to fulfil the testing requirements?
Yes, Covid is impacting the tour but we’ve seen on previous trips how Test players are kept out of the warm-up matches and the Lions have faced diluted opposition – or “modest” as Ronan O’Gara described it. There has been a clear gulf in class between the tourists and their first two opponents in South Africa so far, Sigma Lions and Sharks.
There needs to be more meaningful and competitive fixtures for the Lions – these one-sided contests are of little benefit to either side.
And with the Boks’ second Test against Georgia cancelled because of Covid cases in both camps, the world champions are likely to go into the Test series undercooked too.
They have now played just one Test since winning the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and are also limited in the training they can do due to the number of players who have tested positive, isolation protocols and so on.
The tour is heading towards a first Test on Saturday 24 July where both the competing teams are likely to be rusty rather than well-oiled. And that’s a shame for all concerned.
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