After the warm-up at Murrayfield, the Lions tour gets properly underway against Sigma Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday. A convincing win is the goal for Warren Gatland's men
Sigma Lions v British & Irish Lions Preview
Let us park last weekend’s 28-10 win against Japan at Murrayfield. The real British & Irish Lions tour starts now, against the newly branded Sigma Lions at Emirates Airline Park. Or Ellis Park to traditionalists.
Saturday’s match (5pm BST) is the first of just eight fixtures on South African soil, the shortest Lions tour there’s ever been. Sometimes the Lions’ opening performance has had a ragged look to it, as occurred four years ago when they stumbled to a jetlag-affected win over NZ Provincial Barbarians. There is no time for that. They must hit the ground running.
LIONS TOUR OPENERS – in host country in the pro era
2017 13-7 v NZ Provincial Barbarians
2013 69-17 v Western Force
2009 37-25 v Royal XV
2005 34-20 v Bay of Plenty
2001 116-10 v Western Australia
1997 39-11 v Eastern Province
It’s a great irony that the last Lions to lose their opening fixture was the legendary 1971 team that Warren Gatland watched in awe as a seven-year-old. Carwyn James’s men lost 15-11 to Queensland before changing the game with their winning rugby in New Zealand.
The Sigma Lions – they started the week as the the Emirates Lions – are a team full of young players making their way or others trying to prove a point after frustration elsewhere. It’s expected to be the Lions’ easiest fixture.
It doesn’t help the hosts that they are without veteran Springbok Willem Alberts following a hamstring tear. The 43-cap back-row will be missed for his leadership, physicality and composure. Alberts actually played in this equivalent fixture in 2009, the tourists trouncing the Johannesburg-based franchise 74-10.
The Sigma Lions have had a disrupted build-up. They had some Covid cases in their squad and cancelled a Pro14 Rainbow Cup game against the Stormers. But they went into a bubble and have enjoyed a good week’s training for Saturday’s match.
The Japan match was only a partial success for Gatland’s Lions. They won easily, had a few standout performers, but conceded all the momentum when Japan threw on their replacements. Losing Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric to shoulder injuries was a serious blow and they will be extra keen to emerge with a clean bill of health this weekend.
South Africa have a term ‘tenderising’. Applied here, it means provincial teams softening up the tourists so that the Springboks can devour them in the Test series.
Any tenderising going on this weekend needs to be done by the likes of Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes, by Owen Farrell and Chris Harris in midfield, by Hamish Watson and Toby Faletau in the back row. Faletau, restored to No 8 after filling in for Tipuric at Murrayfield, could do with a big performance.
A convincing win would get the tour off to a perfect start.
What’s the team news?
The surprise is that Gatland only made 14 changes – Wales wing Josh Adams gets another run after scoring the Lions’ opening try last weekend.
There were no English starters in that Lions XV – for the first time in 71 years – and this time it’s the Irish contingent who sit things out. The only representatives are Iain Henderson and Bundee Aki on the bench.
A week on from his substitute role for Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham, Stuart Hogg has the honour of leading out the Lions for their opening match on South African soil. Interest lies in the selection of Farrell at 12 outside Finn Russell, who gets to be a ‘bona fide’ Lion after being part of the Geography Six in 2017.
There are Lions debuts for fellow Scots Harris and Watson, England’s Hill and Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit. In addition, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zander Fagerson and Gareth Davies can expect to make their Lions bow off the bench.
Cowan-Dickie has passed the HIA protocols after his head injury against Harlequins while the likes of Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Tom Curry must wait for another day. With every squad member promised a start in the first three games, they are clearly being saved for the more testing midweek game against Sharks.
Few of the young Sigma Lions squad – even the captain, Francke Horn, is only 22 – will be familiar to British and Irish fans. Fly-half Jordan Hendrikse, 20, only made his first start for the Lions in May but has been hailed as a “special talent” by coach Ivan van Rooyen.
Scrum-half Dillon Smit is not long back from shoulder surgery while wing Jamba Ulengo, selected for the 2016 Springboks tour, overcame a career-threatening knee injury with the help of a specialist in Sweden.
Vincent Tshituka is probably the pick of the hosts’ back row, and expect some firepower off the bench – loosehead Sti Sithole has gone toe to toe with Springboks Frans Malherbe and Trevor Nyakane recently and not suffered in comparison.
Nathan Macbeth, the starting loosehead, is Scotland-qualified while tighthead Ruan Dreyer (Gloucester) and full-back EW Viljeon (Leicester) both had unsuccessful spells in England.
What have the coaches said?
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland: “We’ve had a reasonably good look at them (Sigma Lions) and they’re going to be strong up front. For us the first game on tour is always difficult, just getting up to speed. They’re probably the least affected of the five teams, or four teams, in terms of the number of players they would have lost to the Springbok squad.
“They are going to be fairly settled and strong and for a lot of these players it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play against the Lions. They’re going to be incredibly motivated to want to play well. We understand there’s not going to be any crowds but that’s not going to take away from their desire to want to be the first team to beat the Lions on tour.”
On the Russell-Farrell combination: “They’ve worked really well together. Finn has a slightly different way of playing. He’s matured amazingly in the last few years in terms of his game management and the way he controls the game.
“We know what flair he has from an attacking perspective, but it’s also those deft attacking kicks that he’s able to bring. It’s exciting to have a look at that combination. We want to have a look at Owen at ten at some stage as well and give him an opportunity there because that’s where he’s been picked. But we know he’s equally comfortable in the 12 position.”
Sigma Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen: “It’s a big occasion but we have to ensure the players don’t become so star-struck that they can’t play.
“It’s an opportunity to show them what South African rugby is all about. After the game, people will have a good idea what this B&I Lions team is all about and how good they are.
“The tempo of the game will be high and it will be physical. That is why we need calm heads at two, five, eight, nine, ten and 15. They are the players that need to make those big calls and get the workers going.
“This is such a big opportunity for every player involved. There is such a small group of guys who will have the chance to face players of this calibre in their lifetime. I hope they truly take a moment to take it in and savour the enormity of the moment.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Sigma Lions v British & Irish Lions v Japan, Saturday 3 July, Emirates Airline Park
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.
South African AJ Jacobs, a qualified hurdles coach, is the referee. His mentor, Jaco Peyper, is on the touchline, along with England’s Wayne Barnes. TMO is South Africa’s Stuart Berry.
What are the Sigma Lions v British & Irish Lions line-ups?
Sigma Lions: EW Viljoen; Jamba Ulengo, Manuel Rass, Burger Odendaal, Rabz Maxwane; Jordan Hendrikse, Dillon Smit; Nathan McBeth, PJ Botha, Ruan Dreyer, Ruben Schoeman, Reinhard Nothnagel, Sbusiso Sangweni, Vincent Tshituka, Francke Horn (capt).
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Carlu Sadie, 19 Ruhan Straeuli, 20 Emmanuel Tshituka, 21 Morne van den Berg, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Dan Kriel.
British & Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg (capt); Louis Rees-Zammit, Chris Harris, Owen Farrell, Josh Adams; Finn Russell, Ali Price; Wyn Jones, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes, Hamish Watson, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Bundee Aki, 23 Elliot Daly.
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