The Lions make a rash of late changes against Sharks at Ellis Park on a day disrupted by Covid issues. Here's everything you need to know about the third match of the tour
Sharks v British & Irish Lions preview
A testing encounter against Japan, a more gentle workout against Sigma Lions. What’s next for the British & Irish Lions?
Warren Gatland expressed concern over the comparative ease of last weekend’s 56-14 win. Not that the local media was overly impressed by the visitors, one headline reading No fireworks from Finn as tourists fail to dazzle.
The Lions won’t give a fig about that. They are building, layer by layer. They want a step up in intensity and expect them to get it today from the Sharks, who were comfortably South Africa’s strongest franchise before lockdown commenced last year.
The kick-off, due to have been 6pm BST, has been pushed back by one hour to 7pm. This is to accommodate the return of PCR test results from the tourists’ squad after the return of a positive test for Covid among the management team.
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The Durban-based Sharks, whose business partners include Roc Nation, the company founded by rapper Jay-Z, are lacking their stellar names. Nine Sharks joined the Springboks bubble after Rainbow Cup SA and a further five are on duty with the country’s U20s.
So the Lions will hope to make another statement and turn Saturday’s seven out of ten performance – Gatland’s verdict – into an eight or nine. Hamish Watson was conspicuous through his excellence and now Tom Curry, a likely rival for a Lions shirt in the Test series, gets a chance to respond.
The postponement of the weekend’s match against the Bulls increases the pressure on each Lions player to make every opportunity count. And doing so in a way that puts the team’s interests ahead of personal ambition.
“The selection dilemma for this series is beyond staggering,” said Sky Sports pundit Ronan O’Gara, who toured SA with the 2009 Lions. “Never has so much in a sporting occasion been dependent on getting the combinations right. You can go so many different ways.”
On the Lions’ two previous tours to South Africa, they beat the Sharks 42-12 (1997) and 39-3 (2009). Both those games were in Durban of course, a far cry from 2021 when the players can’t exchange shirts with their opponents and there are virtual capping ceremonies. South Africa is on lockdown Level 4 with a curfew time of 9pm to 4am.
What’s the team news?
The Covid issues force four late changes to the Lions back-line. Half-backs Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies drop out, to be replaced by Ali Price and Owen Farrell. A third Welshman, Liam Williams, also misses out, with compatriot Josh Adams coming in at full-back.
Anthony Watson is the fourth Lion to drop out, with Louis Rees-Zammit taking his place.
Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris all drop out of the match-day squad as well, with Maro Itoje, Hamish Watson, Finn Russell and Taulupe Faletau filling the breach. Fly-half Russell is the only replacement back.
The Lions give debuts to back-rows Curry and Josh Navidi, and second-row Adam Beard. Beard and Navidi were summoned as injury replacements after the opening game against Japan while Curry has recovered from a pectoral injury.
Sam Simmonds returns to the international stage for the first time since England’s 2018 defeat to Ireland and the captain’s armband goes to Iain Henderson. The Ulster lock has done the job just once in 63 Tests for Ireland, in this year’s 15-13 defeat by France in Dublin.
Elliot Daly, who looked lively off the bench against the Sigma Lions, gets his first start at 13 for an international team since the England-South Africa autumn clash of 2016.
Two-cap Springbok Curwin Bosch and Jaden Hendrikse, older brother of Sigma Lions fly-half Jordan, who the tourists faced last weekend, will steer the ship for Sharks.
Bosch isn’t part of the current Boks set-up, a woeful day with the boot in January’s Currie Cup final defeat to Bulls not aiding his cause.
Marius Louw is the replacement for Andre Esterhuizen, now an English champion with Harlequins, while co-centre Jeremy Ward is reputedly the king of the Bronco fitness drill. A recent news story said he came close to beating Beauden Barrett’s record in the shuttle test.
Wing Werner Kok is still better known for his sevens exploits with the Blitzboks, and full-back Manie Libbock is a fly-half by inclination who left the Bulls last year after being sidelined by the return of veteran Springbok Morne Steyn from France.
The only change to the Sharks XV beaten 32-31 by Western Province last week is the return after concussion of 22-year-old captain Phepsi Buthelezi at No 8.
Hooker Fez Mbatha, 21, was in the Springboks’ recent alignment camp and Thembelani Bholi, ten years older than Mbatha, is enjoying a new lease of life after being stranded by the liquidation of Southern Kings last year.
The Sharks replacements include ex-Ulster prop Wiehahn Herbst and loosehead Ntuthuko Mchunu, a former back-row who scored a 50-metre try against the local Lions in March.
Lock Reniel Hugo bagged a hat-trick at Stormers a couple of months back and look out for JJ van der Mescht, 22, who has been likened by one of his former coaches to Brodie Retallick and Olivier Roumat – quite some accolade. The Sharks have opted for a 6-2 bench split.
What have the coaches said?
Lions coach Warren Gatland: “It’s a quick turnaround from Saturday but we’ll be ready to go by Wednesday night. We feel like we’re slowly building, but as ever there’s still room for improvement in all facets of our game.
“This is another chance for us to have a look at a few more combinations. I’m looking forward to seeing how the back row goes; it’s an exciting mixture and one that we hope will offer something a bit different.”
On why he picked Iain Henderson as captain: “There are a couple of other players we could have looked but Iain’s an obvious choice for us given his experience and stature in the game.
“I spoke to Andy Farrell during the Six Nations and he was full of praise for Iain’s leadership and what he was bringing to the Ireland side. He just brings a calm approach to it. That was a natural fit for us and a great honour for him too.”
On Sharks: “I think they’ll go out with an attitude of wanting to throw the ball around, take a few risks. We’re focusing on our preparations, we can’t look too much at the opposition.”
On Elliot Daly: “I thought he was outstanding coming off the bench (against Sigma Lions), not just from an attacking perspective. We know he can cover on the wing and full-back but that’s definitely a position for him for the future. It gives us options as we wait for Robbie Henshaw to come back from that slight hamstring strain.”
Sharks coach Sean Everitt (to SA Rugby Mag): “It’s a massive challenge for us. They are the best in the UK and Ireland, a massive team and one with a lot of top-class individuals. It’s a great challenge for our guys to measure how far they are away from international rugby.
“We learned a lot from their game against the Golden Lions and we know we have to be switched on at all times. They play at a high intensity and look to speed the game up. It’s something we’ve been working on in South African rugby but we aren’t quite there yet.
“Although these games aren’t for any log or league points, they are really important to the South African cause. I know our guys will be up for the challenge. We can’t just play rugby and throw the ball around and expect things to happen. We must get the fundamentals right otherwise we will be punished. We’ve got to make sure we’re accurate and execute well.
“The Sharks now have an opportunity to improve on the (Sigma) Lions’ performance from the weekend. We will grab that opportunity with both hands. At the same time, if the team performs well, individuals will be putting their hands up for national selection.”
On fly-half Curwin Bosch: “He has led our team, our game management and our attack over the last 12 months and has done it really well. The pressure will fall on him to direct the team.
“Game management in games like this is really important. The Lions won’t give you much, so it’s about exploiting the opportunities that we get. Most of those will come from Curwin.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions, Wednesday 7 July, Emirates Airline Park
The match kicks off at 7pm (BST) and will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, with highlights to follow on All4. Or you can listen to live commentary on talkSPORT.
In a shuffle of last weekend’s team of three, South African Jaco Peyper is the referee and Wayne Barnes and AJ Jacobs his assistants. TMO is South Africa’s Marius van der Westhuizen.
Sharks: Manie Libbok; Werner Kok, Jeremy Ward, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams; Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Khwezi Mona, Fez Mbatha, Khutha Mchunu, Ruben van Heerden, Hyron Andrews, James Venter, Thembelani Bholi, Phepsi Buthelezi (capt).
Replacements: 16 Kerron van Vuuren, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 JJ van der Mescht, 20 Reniel Hugo, 21 Dylan Richardson, 22 Grant Williams, 23 Anthony Volmink.
Lions: Josh Adams; Louis Rees-Zammit, Elliot Daly, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe; Owen Farrell, Ali Price; Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zander Fagerson, Iain Henderson (capt), Adam Beard, Josh Navidi, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Hamish Watson, 22 Finn Russell, 23 Taulupe Faletau.
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