Finn Russell and Owen Farrell will look to attack the Emirates Lions out wide
Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
A first tour match in South Africa brings plenty of changes and serious tactical intrigue.
After Warren Gatland named a completely changed starting XV – with Stuart Hogg captaining from full-back – here are four things to watch out for from the British and Irish Lions as they face the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Farrell and Finn: fire and ice, but lots of width
The Lions look certain to impart plenty of width over their time in South Africa. Hints to that effect have been dropping since April when Gregor Townsend was confirmed as attack coach.
More clues arrived with the squad announcement, notably in the selection of Sam Simmonds and Jack Conan as No 8s and the inclusion of Finn Russell over Johnny Sexton.
Although the Scotland fly-half possesses a cute kicking game and has promised to be as pragmatic as Gatland wishes, there is no point unleashing the Racing 92 ringmaster without taking advantage of his rare range of passing. Russell’s armoury of dinks and chips – both out to the flanks and over opposition midfields – are likely to come into the equation as well.
Lions wings Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe roamed across the pitch on Saturday against Japan. Adams is retained, and will contribute everywhere. However, expect Louis Rees-Zammit to be hugging his touchline with the company of Taulupe Faletau.
At the Lions’ squad announcement in May, Gatland suggested that Owen Farrell would be sticking at fly-half out in South Africa. So far, that seems slightly disingenuous.
Farrell replaced Bundee Aki at the weekend, slotting in between Dan Biggar and Robbie Henshaw. England’s captain starts at inside centre for the tour opener, and can help Russell to add even more width to his side’s approach as a second distributor in what is a fascinating midfield axis.
Biggar was the chief playmaker on Saturday and fed the flanks where necessary. He flung two long passes in the lead-up to Van der Merwe’s try. This snapshot, from the same attack, demonstrates a few of the Lions’ attacking principles.
Tipuric and Conan are hanging in the far 15-metre channel. Van der Merwe – who would finish with a pick-and-go close to the near touchline moments later – is offering himself on Biggar’s inside. Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Rory Sutherland form a three-man midfield pod of forwards.
Behind them sits Henshaw with Liam Williams and Aki beyond them:
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Watch how the attack plays out:
Later, the Lions’ strung together some punchy, zig-zagging phase-play prior to Beirne’s try. Biggar’s flat pass laid on the line-break beautifully:
Japan dominated possession after Farrell joined the fray, but this picture shows how two playmakers can dovetail around a similar shape to provide more options. Farrell is at first-receiver and has a three-man pod of forwards to his left.
Biggar is nestled in behind as a potential second-receiver and an outlet to the near touchline. This time, Beirne is out wide close to the far touchline:
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With scurrying scrum-half Ali Price able to fix fringe defenders, a pair of kickers at 10 and 12 offers greater scope to tease the Emirates Lions around the back-field.
Farrell’s goal-kicking prowess frees up Russell to concentrate on what he does best – scanning for space and picking runners. Aki’s presence on the bench indicates that, bar injury, one of them will play the entire 80 minutes.
Russell and Stuart Hogg combined brilliantly with young Cameron Redpath at Twickenham during the Six Nations. This time, Scotland’s dynamic duo have Farrell as a facilitator.
The hosts will fire heavy bodies towards the Lions’ 10-12 channel, but this is an experiment worth staging so early in the schedule.
Skipper Stuart Hogg, dark horse Chris Harris
After a curious end to the season with Exeter, during which Rob Baxter benched him and preferred Jack Nowell at full-back, Hogg assumes the captaincy. That should bring a significant boost to his confidence.
Aerial dominance and accurate positioning have to be Hogg’s aims if he is to oust Liam Williams in a two-horse race for the Tests.
His strike-running and electric kick-returns should take care of themselves. If the Lions flood Hogg, Rees-Zammit and Faletau down the same 15-metre channel, they will cause headaches.
Chris Harris, wearing 13 outside the fascinating Russell-Farrell combination, has a big job on his hands. His intuition and organisation must knit together the defensive effort, as Henshaw did against Japan.
Besides that, you would imagine that the Gloucester man will have some unglamorous carrying to do – or at least some convincing angles to run – if the Lions are to avoid becoming overly lateral.
Watson given first shot in openside duel
Without either Hamish Watson or Tom Curry in Gatland’s match-day 23 at Murrayfield, Tipuric’s shoulder injury unbalanced the Lions pack.
They played an hour with a back row of Beirne, Faletau and Conan. The two Irishmen enjoyed eye-catching performances, with Faletau unselfishly knuckling down to an unfamiliar role.
Josh Navidi, who has replaced Tipuric in the touring party, is a tough and adaptable operator. However, he has been deployed far more often as a blindside flanker in Tests. With that in mind, Watson and Curry appear poised for a tussle over the number seven jersey.
Curry is more versatile but the former has the first chance. Helpfully, there is strong infrastructure around him. Wyn Jones, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill represent a tight-five that should be muscular and cohesive.
Fellow back-rowers Courtney Lawes and Faletau, together with the Saracens brains trust, will take on the lineout responsibilities. Watson’s remit will be to replicate his all-action displays for Scotland.
Watch out for his decision-making at defensive breakdowns, how he is used at the tail of driving mauls and when he gets his hands on the ball.
A bench to excite and increase tempo
The blend of replacements brings another interesting dimension. Iain Henderson and Aki produced strong matches against Japan. Their bench buddies will be itching to make an impression.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds have been in bristling form. Mako Vunipola and Zander Fagerson will bustle around in the loose. Gareth Davies can shake things up on both sides of the ball and Elliot Daly could yet prove to be a wildcard.
His left boot is a weapon even without the Highveld’s altitude and we have been promised that he will feature at outside centre, where he has looked assured and accomplished for Saracens.