Saturday brings the final audition for Lions Test selection as the tourists challenge the Stormers in Cape Town. A convincing win would lift the spirits after the midweek setback
Stormers v British & Irish Lions preview
There were positive noises emanating from the Lions camp after this week’s 17-13 defeat to South Africa A. Fair enough. You can put a spin on most things, so why not stay upbeat.
But here are a few counter-blows to temper the mood of optimism ahead of the Lions’ final provincial fixture against the DHL Stormers at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday (5pm).
The British & Irish Lions should not be losing to a squad that has been cooped up in their hotel rooms for days on end after more than 20 positive tests for Covid (players and management). South Africa A were visibly tiring in the second half, as you would expect, but they still had enough in the tank to win the match. They will only get stronger.
The South Africans, with Eben Etzebeth to the fore, won the physical battle on Wednesday. Marco van Staden, who will be playing for Leicester Tigers next season, was immense and yet he might not even be playing in the Test series after the absent Bok forwards enter the fray.
South Africa’s famed defence looks as near-impenetrable as ever. The Lions aligned deeper on Wednesday to get to the edges but where did it get them? They still only had one pick-and-go try to show for 80 minutes of huff and puff.
And while the tourists might have learned a lesson – don’t land a kick anywhere near Cheslin Kolbe unless it’s very high and very contestable – both the quality of their kicking and their aerial work was not up to scratch.
Is this overly negative? Perhaps. Certainly the match benefited the Lions as much as the South Africans, finally providing the sort of physical intensity they will need in next weekend’s series opener.
The calibre of the Lions’ defensive mauling once Adam Beard joined Maro Itoje was informative. Beard only joined the squad as a replacement for Alun Wyn Jones, who is on the bench this weekend after his remarkable recovery from a dislocated shoulder.
Who would be more effective when the Test series gets underway: totemic leader Alun Wyn, desperately short of match fitness, or the whistled-up 6ft 8in Beard with his Mr Gadget arms?
It is but one question among many. Just when you think you’re answering a selection issue, along come returning players like Stuart Hogg and Robbie Henshaw – starters this Saturday – to complicate the equation.
Hogg makes the Test XV chosen by Sky Sports pundit Ronan O’Gara, the Ireland legend saying of the Scotland skipper: “He’s hurting and this is his chance to relaunch.”
Naturally, the Lions will want to steady the ship on Saturday by returning to winning ways. They will also hope to emerge unscathed. Liam Williams lasted only a few minutes against South Africa A, failing an HIA, and his availability for the first Test is necessarily in doubt as he goes through the concussion protocols.
DID YOU KNOW? The Lions game will be part of a double header on Saturday – South Africa A will play the Vodacom Bulls at the same stadium, kicking off at noon
Anthony Watson (tight hamstring and ankle sprain) and Wyn Jones (shoulder stinger) also picked up knocks in the midweek defeat. Jones, the try-scorer in midweek, might just be edging the fascinating three-way scrap for the Test loosehead spot.
The Stormers are coached by John Dobson, who was shortlisted for the Harlequins job that recently went to Tabai Matson. The Cape-based side faced recent disruption when one of the coaches tested positive for Covid ahead of a Currie Cup match with Griquas.
To mark the occasion, the Stormers will wear limited-edition heritage jerseys.
What’s the team news?
A headline Lions selection is the return of Robbie Henshaw, who has been biding his time with a hamstring injury suffered in the tour opener against Japan last month. Pre tour, the Irishman was tipped to wear 13 in the Tests and that outcome cannot now be discounted.
Marcus Smith, who will no doubt be fined in the end-of-tour court for arriving late, gets a start at ten when most would have expected he come off the bench. It will be his Lions debut and who knows how many tours will follow for this extraordinary talent.
Hogg returns after a period of self-isolation and wears the captain’s armband, as he did against Sigma Lions. And Josh Adams is back having dropped out on Wednesday to watch the birth of his baby daughter, Lottie. His Instagram post announcing the news received more than 12,000 likes (and counting).
Alun Wyn Jones, putting Lazarus to shame, is on the bench and will probably be given 20 to 30 minutes as he begins his own bid to play in the Castle Lager Test series.
There is a reunion of sorts for Smith because at fly-half for the Stormers is Tim Swiel, who was briefly an understudy to the Englishman at Harlequins. According to Opta, they shared 22 minutes of Premiership game time.
Lock Ernst van Rhyn, a former SA Schools and Junior Springbok captain and current DHL Western Province skipper, will lead the Stormers out for the first time. Van Rhyn will be partnered in the second row by JD Schickerling, who in 2014 broke his neck during an U21 match for Western Province and was within 2mm of being paralysed.
The back row includes Johan du Toit, younger brother of reigning World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph, and a star in the making in Nama Xaba, a former SA Schools captain not dissimilar in style to Heinrich Brüssow.
Dan du Plessis is the son of Michael, a star of the Western Province team that won five successive Currie Cups in the 1980s. Another centre, ex-Springbok Juan de Jongh, is part of a long list of replacements and will be familiar to Wasps fans in particular. He recently brought an end to a four-year stint at the English club.
And just as the Sharks fielded a former sevens star in Werner Kok, so the Stormers have one of their own in Seabelo Senatla. An aspirant Springbok, the wing was sent off in May for a dangerous tackle against Sharks and received a four-week ban.
What have the coaches said?
Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “We’re looking at some combinations and also some players we wanted to have another run-out. Then there are a few players who have had some rugby and are freshening up for next week so they get a full week of training too.
On his Test selection: “It’s probably fluid in terms of 60 or 70%. We’ll see some players have a hit-out this weekend, look at some of those combinations.
“There’s a few guys who aren’t involved who we’re pretty happy with but it’s still an opportunity for the guys on Saturday to stake a claim as well.
“We’re thinking it’s not just about the starting 15, it’s about looking at combinations. You’ve got to look at the individuals and think if someone is a better starter, and someone would have more of an impact on the bench. We know how physical these games are going to be and we want some energy and some real impact from players coming off the bench.
“I thought the impact of those players coming off the bench (v South Africa A) was excellent – Luke Cowan-Dickie, I thought Mako Vunipola was really good, Zander Fagerson carried well, Sam Simmonds too, Elliot Daly had quite a lot of time. Those are the sorts of things we are discussing and thinking about for selection next week.”
On the return of Hogg and Henshaw: “Stuart’s been a little bit unlucky in the last couple of Lions tours given the eye injury in 2017 which put him out of the series and then being a close contact with Covid, which has kept him out for a couple of games. So it’s good to have him back and he’ll be ready and raring to go.
“Robbie Henshaw had a fantastic Six Nations and we’re looking forward to him getting back on the park and hopefully putting his hand up.”
Stormers head coach John Dobson: “Any match against the British & Irish Lions is an historic occasion and we will be doing everything we can to do justice to the magnitude of this game.
“The team has been highly disciplined in our bubble this week and now it’s about doing everything we can on the field for 80 minutes.”
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Stormers v British & Irish Lions, Saturday 17 July, Cape Town Stadium
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 is the referee for this one. Jaco Peyper and AJ Jacobs are his assistants and fellow South Africa Marius van der Westhuizen is the TMO. It’s the group’s last match before the bubble is broken and a new team of officials take over for the Test series.
What are the line-ups?
DHL Stormers: Sergeal Petersen; Seabelo Senatla, Rikus Pretorius, Dan du Plessis, Edwill van der Merwe; Tim Swiel, Godlen Masimla; Leon Lyons, JJ Kotze, Neethling Fouche, Ernst van Rhyn (capt), JD Schickerling, Nama Xaba, Johan du Toit, Evan Roos.
Replacements (from): 16 Andre-Hugo Venter, 17 Kwenzo Blose, 18 Sazi Sandi, 19 Justin Basson, 20 Marcel Theunissen, 21 Thomas Bursey, 22 Abner van Reenen, 23 Juan de Jongh, 24 Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, 25 Niel Otto, 26 Leolin Zas, 27 Cornel Smit.
Lions: Stuart Hogg (capt); Josh Adams, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe; Marcus Smith, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tadhg Furlong, Adam Beard, Jonny Hill, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Chris Harris, 23 Louis Rees-Zammit.
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