Have Hamish Watson and Elliot Daly done enough to start against the Springboks?
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The biggest compliment anyone can give to Warren Gatland’s players is that, amid the chaos of a uniquely bizarre British and Irish Lions tour, they have made Test selection excruciatingly tough for their head coach.
Yes, there has only been one warm-up match of substance. Yes, weak provincial opponents and a shorter schedule have made it harder for anyone to play themselves out of the reckoning definitively. But the difficulty of the calls due to be finalised over the next three days or so is, as they say, why Gatland gets paid the big bucks.
With that in mind, as the New Zealander and his Lions coaches begin to whittle down their wider squad into a Test 23 to take on South Africa, what will be the chief considerations?
Who wins the back-row head-to-heads?
Unless there is a surprise start for Josh Navidi somewhere – and the dogged grappler would not let anybody down – it appears as though Warren Gatland will stick with the back-row configuration that has seemed inevitable since the squad was announced. And that leaves him three beastly selection head-to-heads.
First up, the role of heavy-duty blindside flanker capable of adding muscle to the gain-line battle and spring to the lineout. Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne are the contenders here.
It has felt like the last Lions tour has been a catalyst in catapulting the former’s career, which was already impressive, towards another level. Since 2017, Lawes has developed his breakdown disruption and his interplay without compromising on the muscular, technically-excellent tackling that remains his trademark.
Beirne is arguably a slightly more intuitive attacker and adds elite jackalling powers that could frustrate the Springboks. His ninth-minute turnover against the Stormers, after which he was alert and skilful enough to spin and feed Duhan van der Merwe with a 15-metre pass, encapsulated his feel for transition situations. Note that Hamish Watson’s low tackle sets up the jackal opportunity:
Tadhg Beirne jackal
At openside flanker, we have the Anglo-Scottish battle between two tearaways as Tom Curry and Watson face off. On this eight-match tour, the England star began slowly and needed to make a statement against South Africa A. He did so. Curry’s balanced running and distribution underpinned the Lions’ brightest moments. Watson is a probably punchier carrier, and has followed up a superb Six Nations for Scotland strongly. Both are crafty and committed around the tackle-area.
Finally, we come to the base of the scrum and Jack Conan’s duel with Taulupe Faletau. In phase-play, the Lions have attacked with their forwards spread out across the field in a 3-3-2 formation. Their agile number eights have usually been stationed out wide. Again, this was predictable enough when the squad was revealed.
Exceptional performances for Ireland and Leinster in victories over England and Exeter Chiefs will have featured in pre-tour conversations about Conan and he has translated that form impressively. His defence has been particularly sturdy on tour. Faletau had been reasonably subdued, but sparked to life either side of half-time against South Africa A with some loping runs and a gorgeous flick-pass to Louis Rees-Zammit.
Taulupe Faletau sprints down the flank against South Africa A
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Gatland does have options beyond this three-pot pick and mix. Shunting Lawes or Beirne up to lock instead might surrender the scrummaging ballast and the ability to stall the Springboks mighty maul, though. Similarly, the versatile Curry could be shifted to eight or six to accommodate Watson. Whether we get a trump card or an expected combination, ball security must be a priority because South Africa will be fierce at the breakdown. And that means balance and cohesion are essential for the Lions.
Is Robbie Henshaw ready – and which back brings width?
South Africa A’s rousing defensive display last Wednesday served as a reminder of what the Lions have to break down over the next three weekends. It also reinforced that the Springboks will be relying on many of their tactical principles from Rugby World Cup 2019. They have not had time to change too much, of course.
Their ultra-aggressive, up-and-in defensive system is predicated on dynamic wings – probably two of Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe, Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi – identifying threats and shooting through to shut down attacks with full-back Willie Le Roux following them. If opponents are quick and slick enough, though, this often leaves pockets of space either beyond the edge of their defensive line or in behind.
The make-up of the Lions backline, and their midfield in particular, will indicate how they aim to capitalise on this space. Dual playmakers at fly-half and inside centre has been trialled, but Owen Farrell’s mistakes against South Africa A might make reprising it unlikely. Robbie Henshaw’s return against the Stormers came in the 12 shirt. Was that telling?
Robbie Henshaw defended extremely well against the Stormers
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Despite a fairly quiet performance in attack, Henshaw oozed class in defence. If either he or Bundee Aki are poised to wear 12, it leaves a decision on who will dovetail with the Lions’ starting fly-half as a secondary playmaker. If Gatland wants that distributor at full-back, he could start Stuart Hogg and deploy Chris Harris alongside Aki or Henshaw. If he would prefer his outside centre to assume those responsibilities, a resurgent Elliot Daly is in a strong position.
Barely recognisable from the faltering full-back of England’s Six Nations campaign, Daly has been one of the Lions’ most influential attackers in South Africa. This offload, following a neat set play, released Conan on Saturday:
However, touches such as this grubber, which was threaded through the covering Kolbe and Le Roux, forcing the latter to turn and eventually allowing the Lions to counter from a quick lineout, are more valuable in the context of the Test series:
Gatland may well build from his back three. He seems set to pick one of Hogg and Liam Williams either side of two wings from the trio of Josh Adams, Van der Merwe and Anthony Watson. It is a unit that will bear the brunt of South Africa’s kicking game. All the while, though, the best means of imparting width will be on Gatland’s mind.
Stick or twist down the spine at hooker, scrum-half… and with the captaincy?
Although he has critics that will never acknowledge as much, Gatland is a bold selector – especially when it comes to the Lions. Promoting Marcus Smith above senior fly-halves such as Dan Biggar for a third Test cap might be a step too far, for now at least. Even so, Gatland will not worry that Luke Cowan-Dickie has 27 fewer Test starts than Jamie George and 43 fewer than Ken Owens.
George had not started a Test match for England when he left for the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017. Gatland still gave him a shot at the All Blacks. Four years later, and Cowan-Dickie cannot have done much more to press his case. Arguably, the Exeter Chiefs hooker is the member of the squad that is best equipped to hurl some ferocity back at South Africa. His lineout throwing has been too accurate to be used as an excuse to hold back his breakdown scavenging, explosive carrying and chop-tackling.
Luke Cowan-Dickie stretches over to score against the Stormers
Scrum-half is another position in which reliability is pitted against superior form. Conor Murray has valuable attributes. His robust defending in the front line should ensure that Lions can maintain width – even when the pressure comes on from South Africa’s power runners. Here, early in the defeat to South Africa A, Murray stops a rampaging Eben Etzebeth and Anthony Watson is able to force Nkosi into touch on the following phase:
Ali Price might not bring the same control. However, he boasts a lively running game that could slow the Springboks’ line-speed by fixing the second and third defenders out from rucks:
And so we come to the comeback king and tour captain. Alun Wyn Jones’ cameo on Saturday was punctuated by a number of deft touches in the centre of the pitch.
Ball movement, even among the three-man forward pods, will help the Lions generate quick ball against the Springboks:
Alun Wyn Jones tip
Indeed, Adam Beard’s surge into the Test reckoning has been driven by his mobility and handling as well as his heft and maul defence:
Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson are in no way guaranteed to form the starting second-row partnership, especially if Jones’ leadership is deemed to be indispensable. It is easy to see why Gatland admitted that the make-up back-five forwards will require the most deliberation.
To finish, the bench is clearly a pivotal consideration. Mako Vunipola started all three Tests against New Zealand in 2017 but has seemed comfortable and influential as a replacement on this tour. That would leave either Wyn Jones or Rory Sutherland at loosehead prop. The line-up of the tightheads, with Tadhg Furlong as the starter and Kyle Sinckler held back, is the most certain aspect of the match-day 23.
Elsewhere, there are possibilities galore. The adaptability of Lawes, Beirne, Itoje, Curry, Daly and Farrell would be useful in case Gatland fancies keeping six forwards in reserve. And that might be prudent, because a mighty tussle awaits.