Hamish Watson, Josh Adams and Stuart Hogg proved points to Warren Gatland against the Sigma Lions
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The British and Irish Lions ran out comfortable winners in their first game in South Africa, breezing past the Sigma Lions on Saturday. But what did we learn from the tourists’ performance?
1. Hamish Watson is not too small
This really does not need to be said given that Watson is 6ft 1in and a shade under 16st, but those who still persist with the notion that the Scotland openside is not big enough to take on South Africa should be made to wash their mouth out with soap.
The Sigma Lions are nowhere near the standard of the Springboks, but they are still big men and Watson repeatedly knocked them down like skittles. He even seems to accelerate at the point of contact as he did for a try, spinning out of one tackle which gave him the momentum to go through the next man. Yet he was far more than just a ball-carrier. During the four-plus minutes that the Sigma Lions were camped within the tourists’ 22, he did more than anyone to relief the pressure.
He also showed some delicious passing, especially in setting up Josh Adams’ first try from the tail of the lineout. “He is brilliant,” Stuart Hogg, the captain. said. “It is like someone winds him before the game and just lets him go. He goes out there and runs a million miles per hour and makes about 20 million tackles.”
There is still a long way to go before we put the Six Nations’ player of the tournament into the Test team. There are two giant obstacles in the shape of Tom Curry and Josh Navidi. But if either of those players starts the first Test, it will be through their excellence rather than anything that Watson supposedly lacks. He is the complete package.
Hamish Watson makes a break against Sigma Lions
2. The Farrell-Russell partnership did not click
Like putting together a New Orleans freestyle jazz trumpet player and the London Symphony Orchestra’s first violin, starting Owen Farrell and Finn Russell in the midfield looked like it would not work on paper. And it did not work on the pitch. Their timing together was off one if not two beats.
Farrell twice spilled passes, once from Russell and once from Price after the Scottish half-backs misread the timing of his running line. Both players have their qualities. Russell showcased his immaculate timing of pass, taking the ball to the gainline like a matador before pulling the cape back at the moment of contact. Similarly with the boot, he sees space and takes chances that few other players would dare to take.
On the plus side for Farrell, he released Chris Harris for the opening try, and dictated the Lions’ defensive line-speed and most importantly kicked eight conversions from eight. But both are used to being their side’s primary playmaker and Farrell did not seem well suited to being the backline’s primary ball-carrier. While Farrell ended up with a few blots on his copybook, both players retain a decent chance of playing in the Test team; it just won’t be together.
Owen Farrell was flawless off the tee but his partnership with Finn Russell didn't hit the heights
- British and Irish Lions, player ratings: Watson and Adams start tour with a bang
3. Hogg proved his point
In the 70th minute, Elliot Daly unleashed a booming kick that travelled 50 metres deep into the Sigma Lions’ 22. The game was long won and lungs must have been burning but Stuart Hogg chased that kick like a springer spaniel after a tennis ball, forcing the opposite number to hurry his clearing kick and handing the Lions a territorial advantage of 30 metres. It was not necessarily the Scotland captain’s finest performance.
He only got a couple of opportunities to link up with the rest of the backline at full flight, but this was everything Warren Gatland would have wanted in his full-back. Hogg came into this tour, smarting both from Exeter’s defeat in the Premiership final to Harlequins and more acutely for being dropped for the play-off matches.
Hogg immediately set about making his mark, bravely claiming the two first high bombs that came his way, in one instance almost pushing Adams aside. His best moment came when he chased down flanker Sibusiso Sangweni who had a good 20-metre head-start after an interception. Not only did Hogg make the tackle, but he secured the turnover too.
Stuart Hogg made his mark
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4. Is Josh Adams pencilled into the Test team?
He is not the biggest, fastest or strongest wing, but for pure try-scoring instincts he is a worthy successor to Shane Williams, the last Lions player to score more than four tries in a match. Again the caveat comes that this will be the weakest opposition that the Lions face on tour but four tries is nonetheless a considerable marker, especially after scoring last week against Japan too.
“The guy on the left wing did OK today,” head coach Warren Gatland said. “He knows where the tryline is.” Almost as impressive as his nose for the tryline is his consistency. Game after game, Adams is blemish-free and it is so hard to remember him putting a foot wrong on more than one occasion.
Yet perhaps the biggest factor in his favour is that Gatland must be desperate to pencil at least one name alongside Conor Murray for the opening Test against the Springboks on July 24.
At the moment, every other position seems wide open. Along with Watson, Courtney Lawes was seriously impressive in the back row, but so was Tadhg Beirne last week which makes it such a fiendish challenge compiling the Test team. Putting Adams in there at least solves one of 14 headaches.