Elliot Daly shone from the bench against Sigma Lions
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Another raft of changes from Warren Gatland means more intrigue ahead of the British and Irish Lions’ second game in South Africa against Cell C Sharks.
As the tourists settle into their playing style, competition for Test places is heating up nicely. Here are three things to watch out for on Wednesday evening.
A fillip for England fans
Short of picking Danny Cipriani at fly-half, Christian Wade on the wing and perhaps Steffon Armitage at openside flanker for this encounter with Cell C Sharks, Warren Gatland could not have done more to pique the interest of England supporters.
Following a fairly quiet 25 minutes from the bench against Sigma Lions, Sam Simmonds is unleashed from the start. Elliot Daly also assumes the role of outside centre, reprising a midfield partnership with Bundee Aki that we saw for 10 minutes on Saturday.
British and Irish Lions team to face Sharks
Simmonds joins forces with Tom Curry and Josh Navidi in what is a mobile and tough back row. Moreover, with Tadhg Beirne among the replacements, it is a departure from the back-row formula we have seen so far. There are three nimble players rather than two complemented by a taller blindside flanker. That does make the lineout more vulnerable, though.
After coming on at the weekend, Simmonds was generally deployed as part of the set piece. Hamish Watson remained the forward to link with the backs. Here, for instance, Simmonds helps to lift Maro Itoje with Watson arcing around from the front to feed Chris Harris:
Exeter Chiefs launch Simmonds’ spearing carries in midfield from lineouts. It will be worth keeping an eye on how the back-rowers divvy out the responsibilities. The versatility of Curry – now comfortable as a distributor, a jumper and a runner among the backs – will be handy.
Curry and Simmonds are also well suited to hanging wide in phase-play. Navidi will help his tight five of Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zander Fagerson, Adam Beard and Iain Henderson hold the middle.
Daly, meanwhile, has an opportunity to continue his marked resurgence since a difficult Six Nations. After terrorising Championship defences, he jinked past plenty of Sigma Lions tacklers and offloaded for Gareth Davies to score.
A searing outside break is one of his most effective attributes, but it will be poise as a second playmaker outside Biggar that Gregor Townsend will really want to see. A snappy scoring pass to Josh Adams on Saturday boded well:
The Saracen’s left foot also adds value, both from the tee and with clever nudges behind pressing defences. His selection, initially labelled as bold at best and ludicrous at worst, already looks a sound call that could even influence the Test series.
National allegiances have been put aside by the players, but Gatland may also have inadvertently aided England’s bid for Rugby World Cup 2023 as well. Simmonds and Daly can use this tour as a platform to underline their ability in their favoured positions.
A different – and perhaps better – balance to the backline
Aki is the most explosive and robust centre among the touring party and his presence outside Dan Biggar represents a departure from dual playmakers at fly-half and inside centre. Daly will be distributing when the Lions play to width.
Owen Farrell and Finn Russell are both rested with Stuart Hogg apparently covering fly-half from the bench, wearing 22 as Chris Harris assumes the 23 jersey. It appears as though we will have to wait for another 10-12 axis featuring two of Farrell, Biggar and Russell.
Robbie Henshaw arrived in South Africa as the in-form centre. However, while his hamstring heals, everything is up for grabs. The landscape of Test selection could be altered if a midfield combination clicks.
Bundee Aki carries against Japan at Murrayfield
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Further wide, the back three strikes its own balance with Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson either side of Liam Williams. One wing is a powerful specimen who works around the field and will offer himself as an outlet in heavy traffic. The other is a fast-twitch, evasive runner.
Davies, Biggar and Williams comprise three pillars of Wales’ defensive system. Davies loves rushing up to ruffle opposition half-backs while Biggar and Williams patrol the back-field to ensure that their side can keep 13 men in the front line.
Do not disregard Adam Beard
Beard’s late call-up, on the eve of the Lions’ flight to Johannesburg, triggered familiar accusations of Welsh bias from Gatland, many coming from aficionados of Leinster and Ireland lock James Ryan.
Ryan is a fine player, but anyone that saw the Springboks drive Georgia into submission last Friday will acknowledge that Beard – and his long limbs – could become extremely useful on this tour as a maul-wrecker.
Adam Beard wins a lineout for Wales against England in Cardiff earlier this year
Set-piece solidity has to be a principal aim for Wednesday evening. In Beard and Henderson, there are two heavy bodies to back up Vunipola and Fagerson, who were impressive without being completely destructive on Saturday. Another ominous aspect of South Africa’s first Test since 2019 was the brawn of tighthead prop Frans Malherbe.
Alun Wyn Jones’ injury has opened up the second-row pecking order. Maro Itoje has started strongly and Henderson, who still captain against the Sharks, would appear to be in pole position with Courtney Lawes and Beirne apparently considered as flankers. There is no reason why Beard could not gallop into contention as a Test dark horse.