The serious stuff starts here as the Lions take on a fully loaded South Africa A in Cape Town this evening. As the Test series looms, the selection battle is becoming red-hot
South Africa A v Lions preview
The phoney war is over. After amassing 27 tries and 181 points in three games on South African soil, the British & Lions now face their first real test. South Africa A, their opponents in Cape Town this evening (7pm), are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The strongest team that South Africa can muster, dripping with World Cup winners.
When the teams were announced, people were quick to label the match at Cape Town Stadium the fourth Test. The Lions XV has a whiff of Test-series selection about it, even though it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions.
Conor Murray and Owen Farrell – a late change – take the reins at half-back, while Anthony Watson is given another vital run-out after his impressive two-try performance against the Sharks on Saturday. No one would be surprised to see Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson form the engine room come the Tests, although it’s been confirmed that Alun Wyn Jones is rejoining the squad just 18 days after dislocating his shoulder.
Related: Alun Wyn Jones rejoins Lions squad
Finn Russell has an Achilles tear that will prevent him playing this week. If the injury fails to respond well to treatment, he will be leaving the tour. Marcus Smith, having the sort of fairytale year that makes Hans Christian Andersen look unimaginative, has hotfooted it from Twickenham. All being well, he will make his Lions debut on Saturday.
Big questions remain. Do the Lions want a heavy ball-carrier at 12, as this week with Bundee Aki, or a second playmaker? Which would presumably be Farrell, the England captain.
Do the Lions want a hybrid six, like Tadhg Beirne or Courtney Lawes, to help pressure the Boks’ lineout? Do they opt for players who have cut apart limited opposition, such as Elliot Daly and Duhan van der Merwe, or pick players renowned for defensive attributes?
Sir Ian McGeechan has proposed Watson, Josh Adams and Liam Williams as his back three for the Test series on the grounds that they are best equipped to handle the aerial kicks likely to rain down on them from South Africa’s half-backs. It’s hard to fault the logic.
Ronan O’Gara says the missing piece of the jigsaw is the Lions’ 13, a puzzle complicated by the hamstring injury that is keeping Robbie Henshaw on the sidelines.
The ex-Ireland fly-half now coaching La Rochelle added: “We’ve missed one or two cleanouts when we’ve gone wide-wide. I don’t think we’ve established our shape. Are we playing a 1-3-2-2 or a 1-3-3-1 in terms of attack? Because we haven’t been able to build phases.”
South Africa have their own problems to worry about. In chronic need of match time, they’re without some of their Bok regulars – particularly up front – for this A-fixture due to Covid.
South Africa wanted to play the Lions twice this week to gain valuable game time and team cohesion. Lions coach Warren Gatland, not unreasonably, batted that suggestion away. The tourists play the Stormers on Saturday in their final outing before the series commences on 24 July. Big questions there may be but we will not have to wait long for answers.
What’s the team news?
Tour captain Murray starts as Lions skipper for the first time. There were initially 12 changes to the team that defeated the Sharks 71-31 at Loftus Versfeld last Saturday, with Anthony Watson, Chris Harris and Biggar the three players retained.
However, in a late change, fly-half Biggar has been replaced by Farrell after picking up a minor ankle sprain in training on Tuesday.
And Adams has also dropped out of the starting XV to witness the birth of his first child via Zoom. Watson moves from full-back to wing and Williams now starts at 15. Harris has switched from 12 to 13, partnering Aki in midfield.
Itoje, a late withdrawal last weekend with a stomach bug, lines up in the second row.
South Africa A feature 18 of the Springboks squad that became world champions in 2019. Of the eight players who started the RWC 2019 final and aren’t involved this Wednesday, six are isolating having tested positive for Covid: Siya Kolisi, Lood de Jager, Handre Pollard, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi and Makazole Mapimpi.
Duane Vermeulen is recovering from ankle surgery while Tendai Mtwarira has retired.
Uncapped hooker Joseph Dweba, who has been playing in France this year for Bordeaux-Begles, gets a start at hooker. And uncapped Montpellier lock Nico Janse van Rensburg is part of a ten-strong bench – the eight replacements will be confirmed closer to kick-off.
The starting XV features five players who started in the Springboks’ recent win against Georgia, among them Leicester Tigers No 8 Jasper Wiese.
Morné Steyn, whose long-range penalty famously won the series against the Lions 12 years ago, is reacquainted with the famous red jersey.
What have the coaches said?
Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “We’re pleased to have arrived in Cape Town as we near the halfway stage of the series. This will be our toughest encounter since we arrived. We expect them to be physical in the contact area and look to test us at scrum time.
“I think we’ve benefited from playing at altitude in the first three games. While the boys have felt it in their lungs, they’ll be all the better for it now we’re at sea level.
“As we move towards the business end of the tour, it’s pleasing to see so many players putting in some stand-out performances. As coaches we want the players to make Test selection as hard as possible and that’s what we’re seeing.”
On the strong South Africa A line-up: “I wasn’t expecting them to be as strong as they are, they’re obviously short of games, but I’m delighted with the team they’ve put out because that helps our preparation immensely.
“We’ll get a feel of where we are and what things we need to work on in the ten days leading into the first Test. I’m really pleased with how strong that team is because it’s going to be a tough challenge and everything is about winning the Test series and preparing for that.”
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber: “We’re pleased to name a quality team with a number of experienced players despite the challenges in the last week, which included the squad being confined to their rooms as part of the team’s preventative self-isolation measures.
“We may have lost our captain Siya (Kolisi), but there is a good leadership core within this group with the likes of Morné, Willie (le Roux), Eben (Etzebeth), Trevor (Nyakane) and Steven (Kitshoff), among others, whose experience will be invaluable in a match against a quality British & Irish Lions outfit.
“Players such as Joseph (Dweba) and Nicolaas (Janse van Rensburg) will also get their first taste of running out in the green and gold at senior level in what will mark a memorable occasion in their careers. We are excited to see them showcase their skills.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
South Africa A v British & Irish Lions, Wednesday 14 July, Cape Town Stadium
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.
South Africa’s Jaco Peyper takes the whistle, assisted by Wayne Barnes (RFU) and Marius van der Westhuizen (SARU) on the touchline. TMO is Marius Jonker (SARU).
What are the line-ups?
South Africa A: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am (capt), Damian de Allende, Sbu Nkosi; Morné Steyn, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, Trevor Nyakane, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Marco van Staden, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Jesse Kriel, 23 Damian Willemse, 24 Kwagga Smith, 25 Elton Jantjies.
Lions: Liam Williams; Anthony Watson, Chris Harris, Bundee Aki, Louis Rees-Zammit; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray (capt); Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson, Josh Navidi, Tom Curry, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Tadhg Beirne, 21 Sam Simmonds, 22 Gareth Davies, 23 Elliot Daly.
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