Cowan-Dickie and Smith have done as much as they possibly could to force their way into the team
The Lions’ warm-up matches before the first Test have thrown up more questions than answers. Telegraph Sport’s men in South Africa, Gavin Mairs and Daniel Schofield, assess the five most difficult selection decisions that Warren Gatland must make before announcing his team on Thursday. And scroll down for our correspondents’ suggested XVs.
Balance of the back row
Gavin Mairs’ view: This is probably the most competitive unit in the squad and getting the balance right will be critical. The decision to hold back Courtney Lawes suggests he is ready to start at six, where his physicality, aggressive defending and line-out capability will be key in the opening exchanges, complementing Tom Curry’s pace, physicality and breakdown instincts. Taulupe Faletau has been quiet but is a big-game player while Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson can offer game-changing impact from the bench.
Daniel Schofield’s view: Gatland has continually referred to the back row as his toughest selection. It is easy to see why: Courtney Lawes or Tadhg Beirne? Hamish Watson or Tom Curry? Jack Conan or Taulupe Faletau? Every one appears to be a coin flip. The balance of lineout jumper, scavenger, ball carrier seems fairly set but the personnel filling those positions will engender the greatest debate.
Mix of the back three
Gavin Mairs’ view: Again the options are plentiful for Gatland but given the aerial assault that will be coming their way from Handrè Pollard and Faf de Klerk, Gatland will be desperate for Liam Williams to come through his return-to-play protocol after failing his head-injury assessment last Wednesday. The balance to be struck here is between the finishing talent of Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Duhan van der Merwe and the high-ball prowess of Williams and Anthony Watson. For the first Test, the Lions need to be equipped defensively which is why Williams and Watson must start, while Adams has the most rounded game of the finishers.
Daniel Schofield’s view: The other area that Gatland has referenced repeatedly. Whether at full back or on the wing, Williams has been imperious so far and also has credit in the bank. Stuart Hogg looked sharp on Saturday but his Covid-19 isolation may cost him. Then it is four between two wing spots. Each has his point of difference. Rees-Zammit is the quickest, Watson has the best step, Adams is the Lions’ leading tryscorer while Van der Merwe has beaten 19 defenders. In my book, Watson and Adams get the nod.
Do Cowan-Dickie and Price displace established names?
Gavin Mairs’ view: The toughest assessment for the Lions coaches is to judge performances against the weak franchise sides and the one significant test against South Africa A. I suspect contributions behind the scenes are also one of the major considerations. Ali Price has certainly put huge pressure on Conor Murray for the scrum-half position, and yet here I think Gatland will stick with the Ireland player, whose kicking game is more suited to the Lions’ gameplan. Luke Cowan-Dickie’s contribution against the Stormers, however, may just have been enough to edge out Jamie George.
Daniel Schofield’s view: Against the Stormers, Cowan-Dickie and Price were by far the Lions standout players. If you are picking on form then they should both be shoo-ins. The question is how much experience counts against them as first-time tourists versus the considerable pedigree of George, Ken Owens and Murray. All three have also captained the Lions on this tour. Normally the hot hand wins out but hooker and scrum half are such influential positions that may change.
How to sort the midfield mess
Gavin Mairs’ view: When the Lions left Edinburgh three weeks ago, the biggest question facing Gatland seemed to be who he would pair with Robbie Henshaw in the midfield, with Bundee Aki the strongest contender. Yet on the eve of the Test selection, Henshaw’s place is not certain, given his muted comeback from a hamstring injury that has robbed him of game time. In his absence, Elliot Daly has shone, and his kicking game also gives the Lions another attacking option. Aki has been solid but not as dominant while Chris Harris has had a great tour, but against poor opposition. Henshaw’s contribution in training this week will be key.
Daniel Schofield’s view: In contrast to the embarrassment of riches in those areas, the midfield seems to be the area of least depth. Harris has been by far the standout performer. Henshaw, a nailed on starter before the tour, had his momentum checked by a hamstring injury while Aki has been steady and Farrell did not shine in his one appearance at inside centre. Daly offers the greatest versatility and his kicking may be an ace card.
How to deploy Smith as a game-changer
Gavin Mairs’ view: It has been a remarkable month for the Marcus Smith and after a hesitant start against the Stormers, he grew into the game and showed glimpses of the creativr genius that fired his club to their Premiership triumph. Yet for all the fanfare around his thrilling impact, it was against an inexperienced Stormers side without any of the white-heat pressure of a Lions Test series. If Dan Biggar and Farrell are fit, they will be the two fly-halves in the squad. Injuries may yet open the door for Smith later in the series, but more realism says his target should be the starting 10 in Australia in four years’ time.
Daniel Schofield’s view: Speaking of hot hands, no one’s mitts are burning hotter right now than Smith. In the final 30 minutes against the Stormers, he produced some of the magic that propelled Harlequins to the Premiership title. If you need someone to win you the game then Smith must be considered. Conversely, if the game is in the balance then you would probably entrust Farrell as a replacement to seal a match-winning penalty just as he did in 2017.
The team Gatland should pick for the first Test
Gavin Mairs team to start first Test
Daniel Schofield’s team to start first Test
How Scotland scrum-half Ali Price rose from baker to being on the verge of a Lions Test spot
by Gavin Mairs, in Cape Town
As a schoolboy, Ali Price once had to wake-up at 3am every day to start his summer job shift at a local bakery. It was during those hours before dawn that he used to dream of one day playing for the British and Irish Lions. He couldn’t hack the baker’s job, the disruption to his sleep pattern ensured that he packed it in as he returned to school. Yet he never gave up on his hope of one day pulling on the famous red jersey.
Now the pressure cooker of a Test match against the Springboks now awaits the 28-year-old Scotland scrum-half. His form has been one of the stand-out features of the tour, taking him to the verge of a place in the starting XV at Cape Town on Saturday, with another impressive display in the victory over the Stormers on Saturday.
“That is all any of us can do – to try and perform to our best and make Warren Gatland’s decision as difficult as we can,” said the Scotland scrum-half. “In the four appearances that I have had I feel like I have shown the best of me and tried to play the best that I can. That is all I can do now and it is out of my hands in terms of what is going to happen for the Test series.
“I just had a brief chat (with Gatland) when I came back to the changing rooms, like all the players have. He just said ‘well played’ and that a couple of my box-kicks were probably a bit long and when you look ahead to the sort of back three that South Africa can put out and to try and restrict the amount of space and time that they have on the ball, that will be important.”
And what about the prospect of going toe-to-toe with the Springboks’ chippy scrum-half Faf de Klerk?
“He is a brilliant player, I would describe him as a very busy, competitive player on the field and both sides of the ball,” Price added. “If you look back over the last couple of years, he has led the way in terms of nines not being the biggest guys on the field, but his physicality and influence in defence has been brilliant. You saw that again on Wednesday. He plays close to the line. If given the opportunity it is always great to go out there and test and challenge yourself against the best in your position.”
Ali Price has played himself into contention for a Test spot
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
And so the waiting game begins. Gatland and his coaching team held the first selection meeting on Sunday night but the final reckoning is yet to come. The team is to be announced on Thursday. The head coach must decide as to whether Price’s high-tempo game has been enough to displace Conor Murray, the man that Gatland made tour captain after Alun Wyn Jones suffered his dislocated shoulder against Japan last month.
That appointment could have killed off Price’s hopes of a Test place, but the English-born Scot has instead risen to the challenge.
“Everyone in their position groups are quality players so I think whether you are given the captaincy or not you know it is going to be a battle for the starting shirt and to be in the Test team,” he added. “If someone is captain, Conor has a huge amount of experience and has been on a few tours now and he is a great man to take over from Al. I don’t know if it has any effect or value come this part of the tour, but everyone is a quality player so you just have to go out there and play the best you can.”
The remarkable journey from that bakery to Cape Town has equipped him for the moment.
Born in King’s Lynn and educated at Wisbech Grammar School in Cambridgeshire, Price first made his mark at the academy at Bedford Blues and it was during a match against Cambridge University when he was spotted by a Scotland Exiles scout (Price qualifies through his mother, who is Scottish).
“About a week or so later I had an email asking if I wanted to come up to Leeds initially to an Exiles try-out camp basically for the Scotland Under-20 team,” he added. He had wondered whether a professional contract might pass him by but after being selected for Scotland Under-20s, his form secured him a contract with Glasgow, winning the first of his 42 caps after making his international debut in November 2016.
“Yeah, it’s been a pretty crazy ride,” he added. “I said when the Lions squad got announced back at the start of May, it makes you reflect on everything that’s got you to where you are and thankfully it’s gone well for me so far anyway.
“For me, being involved in the first game on tour against the Lions and getting my first start is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”