Anthony Watson stretches away against Sharks on Saturday

Credit: Getty Images

It speaks volumes for the focus and cohesion of Warren Gatland’s squad that, in spite of the chaos around them in South Africa, British and Irish Lions players keep pressing their credentials for the Test series.

Anthony Watson has become the latest to do so, courtesy of an eye-catching display during a 71-31 victory over the Sharks on Saturday evening. 

With both Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe in devastating form, his performance reinforced some fundamental facets of the Lions’ attacking gameplan that have been in evidence throughout the tour.

Watson started on the right wing and his first of two tries begins with him gathering a pass from full-back Liam Williams before bursting down his own flank:

Initially, Watson stays put to offer himself in case scanning scrum-half Conor Murray probes the blindside:

Soon afterwards, though, the 27-year-old bolts in-field…

…and arrives on the inside shoulder of fly-half Dan Biggar to score from a drop-off pass:

Minutes later, albeit with the Sharks reduced to 14 men, we witnessed some slick structured attack. This screenshot demonstrates the Lions’ 3-3-2 shape clearly.

Sam Simmonds and Ken Owens are involved in the ruck close to the near touchline. Tadhg Beirne is at first-receiver in a three-man midfield pod between Kyle Sinckler and Jonny Hill. Beyond that, another three-man pod contains Wyn Jones, Adam Beard and Tom Curry. 

Watson creeps in-field again, making towards the right shoulder of Biggar:

From there, Beirne feeds Sinckler and the Lions generate quick ball. They have plenty of options on the following phase. Biggar can feed any of the three forwards to his left. Chris Harris is sweeping around to offer an outlet to Williams and Van der Merwe. 

Then there is Watson. His angle is more dangerous because Sharks defenders are having to move laterally towards the far touchline:

Sure enough, Watson bursts through again before releasing try-scorer Curry:

An explosive solo finish would then underline Watson’s athleticism and evasion:

Staking his claim with a second try of the game, well played @anthonywatson_ 🔥

His score in the final moments capped off an impressive second period from the Lions 👊 #LionsRugby #CastleLionsSeries #LionsSA2021

— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 10, 2021

His move to full-back for Wednesday’s match against South Africa A is an intriguing one. Adams and Van der Merwe have been outstanding, working off their wings to plunder a total of 13 tries between themselves.

Lions team to face South Africa A

One area that has been slightly untidy for these two, though, is distribution. Van der Merwe endured a few uncertain moments at the weekend. Here, against Sigma Lions, Adams arcs around in a bid to feed Louis Rees-Zammit but floats a pass that sails forward:

Josh Adams poor pass

In recent times, Watson’s passing has become a more prominent feature of England’s attacking game:

Lions Scrum

This becomes important in the Test series shake-up because there is backline balance to take into account and the Lions will want at least two distributors to help them provide width.

In that regard, Elliot Daly and Liam Williams must have furthered their cases on Saturday. Similarly, the power of Van der Merwe might be handy if Gatland feels the Lions are light on gain-line presence elsewhere.

One would expect that the full-back slot for the Test series remains a shoot-out between Williams and Stuart Hogg, with the former edging ahead. Another assured outing this week would do Watson no harm, though.

From Wednesday, given the extremely strong South Africa ‘A’ line-up selected by Jacques Nienaber, the Lions back-three candidates will start to receive thorough examinations of their positioning. Faf de Klerk, Morné Steyn and Willie Le Roux have all been named to start for what must be very close the best team available to the Springboks . We can anticipate plenty of kicking.

💪 Lukhanyo Am will lead a strong SA 'A' team in Cape Town on Wednesday
🔗 Team announcement: #StrongerTogether #StrongerForever

— Springboks (@Springboks) July 12, 2021

Again, the Lions’ backline blend is a crucial consideration. Biggar is excellent in the air. If he is at fly-half, he will patrol the back-field with his full-back. This will allow the wings to stay up flat in a front line of 13 players.

Owen Farrell is more suited to the front line of defence, so one wing will likely drop to accompany the full-back if the England captain is playing. Watch how Adams sets up this try for Rees-Zammit in the first game against the Sharks:

Although Farrell had been replaced by Finn Russell at this stage, Van der Merwe was hanging in the back-field with Adams:

In their hit-out against Georgia earlier this month, South Africa indicated that they will still lean heavily on kicking. Here, Le Roux hoists an up-and-under for Francois Steyn to chase:

As Georgia full-back Davit Niniashvili covers across, look at the top of the screen. Springboks wing Aphelele Fassi is hugging the far touchline. That means Georgia’s right wing, Akaki Tabutsadze, must be wary:

Steyn bundles Niniashvili into touch…

…and Rosko Specman takes a quick lineout:

The ball is in the hands of Le Roux once more. Looking up, he spots space in behind Tabutsadze…

…and clips a kick into touch:

Le Roux chip

South Africa’s formidable defence means a Georgia lineout five metres out from the try-line is a very favourable result.

Of course, Watson has had first-hand experience of how the Springboks manipulate opponents with the boot. The scrum was a telling factor in the final of Rugby World Cup 2019, but so was South Africa’s kicking game.

Here, just past the hour-mark, De Klerk hangs up a box-kick:

Makazole Mapimpi chases hard, and Watson is penalised for blocking his opposite man in a bid to protect England full-back Daly:

Watson block

Minutes later, Handrè Pollard strikes a high ball towards the openside wing and over Watson from a lineout. Mapimpi, Le Roux and Lukhanyo Am – who will captain South Africa A this week – all chase:

Mapimpi gathers over the top of Daly…

…and South Africa are awarded a scrum. From their next attack, Le Roux dinked over Watson. Daly fielded, but a loss of concentration after Ben Youngs’ clearance meant a disorganised defensive line.

With Watson sucked in towards the breakdown, South Africa break blind through Malcolm Marx and Mapimpi. Picking off tight-five forwards, they score a decisive try:

There is so much firepower available to Gatland, but nullifying the Springboks kicking game will be in his thoughts as well. Wednesday should be a fascinating precursor to the Test series.