The same teams but a host of difference faces as the Sharks and Lions go again in a hastily arranged fixture in Pretoria on Saturday. Expect another barrage of tries
Sharks v Lions preview – the rematch
When the British & Irish Lions were sat in their hotel on Wednesday, the clock at nearly 5.30pm as they awaited Covid test results, the chances of them playing the Cell C Sharks this week were fast receding.
Yet at Loftus Versfeld today (5pm kick-off), the tourists will meet the Sharks for a second time in four days. Doubling up on opponents is not a new phenomenon – indeed, the very first Lions in 1888 started by playing back-to-back matches against Otago – but it’s certainly unprecedented in modern times.
The home side was meant to have been the Bulls, but Covid cases in their camp put a stop to that. Health issues aside, it’s regrettable that the reigning Currie Cup and Super Rugby Unlocked champions weren’t able to fulfil the fixture because the Lions need the strongest opposition they can get.
Related: Lions 2021 Latest News
Fifty-point strolls, as occurred against the Sigma Lions and the Sharks, don’t provide much of a yardstick for Warren Gatland and his coaches as they contemplate selection for the Castle Lager Test series. Currently their toughest challenges come against bib-wearing team-mates in training.
The Lions went into Wednesday’s first match with the Sharks in a degree of chaos, making eight changes to their 23 in the 90 minutes before kick-off. They still won 54-7 without looking sharp.
Nevertheless, the Sharks were the obvious opponents for this weekend’s hastily arranged fixture because they were already in a bubble with no positive Covid tests. It will be interesting to see how the rematch pans out, not least because the hosts’ reshaped team will presumably be even weaker than the one put to the sword in midweek.
The Lions’ main concerns on that occasion were an initial fragility in the scrum, where they leaked three penalties for collapsing, and the concession of too many penalties generally, many for offside or not rolling away. Ice bags on the hamstrings of wings Louis Rees-Zammit and Duhan van der Merwe were not a welcome sight, although the latter starts again here.
On the plus side, the back row went well, Josh Navidi in particular, and Rory Sutherland’s effective counter-rucking was just the sort of detail that enables the Lions machine to tick.
Elliot Daly, a full-back or wing for England but an outside-centre here, is looking a better player than the one we saw in the Six Nations and could easily start in the series if the Lions decide on an attacking option over a defensive one. Watch Wednesday’s highlights below.
We are only three games in, including the Japan match in Scotland, but already names for the Test XV are being pencilled in. The back three have scored 14 of the Lions’ 20 tries to date and Josh Adams, with eight of them, is a shoo-in for a wing spot come the series opener on 24 July. Or so the thinking goes. And Anthony Watson, in most people’s XV pre tour, is trailing after being restricted to 16 minutes of action. Happily, he’s now back in the fray.
Of course, the bigger picture is not just the disrupted Lions build-up for the series but that of South Africa, who have played just one match as a team, against Georgia, since winning the World Cup in 2019. They may need to select likely Springbok combinations in the South Africa A match next week in Cape Town.
That fixture may now be switched round, so that the Lions play the Stormers on Wednesday and South Africa A on Saturday instead of vice versa. Another significant schedule change on the cards is the playing of all three Tests in Cape Town. Presently the second and third Tests are due to take place at altitude at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
The Lions will fly south on Sunday without four of their squad because one player and three staff members are required to isolate in Johannesburg.
Such is the Lions tour 2021. More twists and turns than a twisty turny thing, as Blackadder’s Lord Melchett might say.
What’s the team news?
Saracens’ Jamie George has the honour of captaincy for this one. Van der Merwe, a hat-trick scorer in midweek, and Daly are the only Lions asked to go again from the start.
There’s a belated first start for Bath’s Watson and a new midfield pairing of Daly and Chris Harris, who wears 12 having worn 13 – alongside Owen Farrell – against Sigma Lions. Adams, the only Lion to start the first three matches, gets a well-earned breather.
Antony Watson, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies and Tadhg Beirne all play four days after they had been due to start in the encounter at Ellis Park. There is a 6-2 split on the bench, with Conor Murray and Bundee Aki covering the backs.
The Sharks will be almost unrecognisable from Wednesday because only four players are again in the starting XV. Skipper and No 8 Phepsi Buthelezi, scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse and left-wing Thaakir Abrahams wear the same shirts while Werner Kok – who was as physical as anyone in midweek – switches from right-wing to outside-centre.
The Sharks were allowed to name an 11-strong bench but can only use eight replacements.
Many of the Sharks’ new faces only joined them this year. They include ex-Bulls wing Marnus Potgieter and experienced fly-half Lionel Cronje, 32, who began the year with Japanese side Toyota Verblitz and who also counts the Brumbies among his former clubs.
Le Roux Roets, a 6ft 7in and 140kg giant once of NSW Waratahs, will add bulk to the pack. The second-row once had to lose 30kg in 12 weeks as his weight got out of control.
And back-row Mpilo Gumede last year made an extended list of players that the national coaches could choose from for the Springboks Green v Gold fixture.
What have the coaches said?
Lions coach Warren Gatland: “It’s obviously been a slightly turbulent week but we remain determined to keep rolling with the punches.
“In many ways, the challenges we’ve faced this week have strengthened our resolve to do everything we can to overcome the challenges created by Covid.
“This is another opportunity to see how the boys go and for us as coaches to try out a few more combinations ahead of the Test series.
“We want to pass on thanks to the Sharks boys for fronting up and going again on Saturday. That’s the spirit of rugby, and a great chance for them to have another shot at us.”
Sharks coach Sean Everitt: “Respect for the ball is really important. We do create opportunities but need to show patience, we can’t force the passes or put kicks through.
“We need to hold onto the ball for an extra phase because somewhere along the line the wall can break. We didn’t show enough patience with the ball on attack against the Lions (on Wednesday) and we need to back ourselves to hold it through several phases. When we get that right we’ll be a really good, dangerous side and a difficult one to beat.
“Sometimes it’s the make-up of the individuals and the enthusiasm and energy we have in the team, we tend to force things and hope that something happens from that. What you might get away with at Carling Currie Cup level won’t work against internationals.
“It’s really about getting the balance right: when to have a go and when not to; when to force it and when not to. Against a quality team like the Lions, you have to be patient.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions, Saturday 10 July, Loftus Versfeld
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.
England’s Wayne Barnes takes the whistle for the first of his two games on this tour. He will be assisted by three South Africans, assistant referees Jaco Peyper and AJ Jacobs, and TMO Stuart Berry in the truck.
What are the line-ups?
Sharks: Anthony Volmink; Marnus Potgieter, Werner Kok, Murray Koster, Thaakir Abrahams; Lionel Cronje, Jaden Hendrikse; Nthuthuko Mchunu, Kerron van Vuuren, Wiehahn Herbst, Le Roux Roets, Reniel Hugo, Dylan Richardson, Mpilo Gumede, Phepsi Buthelezi (capt).
Replacements: 16 Dan Jooste, 17 MJ Majola, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Jeandre Labuschagne, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Boeta Chamberlain, 23 Jeremy Ward, 24 Lourens Adriaanse, 25 Rynhardt Jonker, 26 Curwin Bosch.
Lions: Liam Williams; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Rory Sutherland, Jamie George (capt), Tadhg Furlong, Courtney Lawes, Jonny Hill, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Tom Curry, 22 Conor Murray, 23 Bundee Aki.
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