Warren Gatland has picked Stuart Hogg at full-back and Jack Conan at number eight
Credit: Getty Images
And breathe. Warren Gatland has confirmed his British and Irish Lions match-day 23 for the first Test against South Africa and, for a few days at least, we can all desist from selecting our own squads. What a relief.
Three days out from what should be an enthralling series-opener, let us turn our attention to how the Lions might attempt to overcome the world champions.
Lions team to face South Africa in first Test
Intuition over cohesion
The crossover between the Lions’ fixture list and domestic season schedules was always going impinge upon Gatland’s ability to establish new combinations. Injuries and COVID-19 protocols have added extra obstacles, too.
Even allowing for that, the tourists have kept their cards close to their chest. This table, detailing how long the Lions’ positional units have been on the field together over six matches since last month, reinforces as much.
Dan Biggar and Ali Price saw out the final quarter against Japan after the latter came off the bench. Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly started last Saturday’s victory over the Stormers in midfield:
Minutes on the field for the Lions’ starting units this tour
There have been opportunities to build cohesion in games. Eight of the Lions’ first Test starters also started against the Stormers. Five members of the run-on backline to face the Springboks this weekend – Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe as well as Price, Biggar and Henshaw – finished the Japan victory.
Here, in the early stages of a 56-14 win over Sigma Lions, a three-man forward pod of Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes dovetails sharply. Lawes is at first-receiver, and steps back against the grain before flipping an offload to Itoje. Jones follows up and clears opposition openside flanker Vincent Tshitukato produce quick, clean ball for Price:
Midfield pod of Lawes, Itoje, Jones
Existing cohesion has obviously been considered. Half of the Lions’ starting pack – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Itoje, Lawes and Tom Curry – started together for England as recently as the 2021 Six Nations win over Italy. Alun Wyn Jones and Itoje reprise their lock partnership from the 2017 series in New Zealand.
That said, Gatland is placing huge faith in two things: the work that his squad and coaching staff have done on the training field and his players’ intuition and adaptability. We are not privy to the former, but there have been promising signs of the latter.
Take the build-up to Adam Beard’s try against the Stormers. Note the starting positions of Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong and Cowan-Dickie in particular. The first two start in separate three-man pods with the hooker out wide on his own…
…but the picture changes quickly.
Conan plays a pull-back to Henshaw from first-receiver and Tadhg Beirne hits a hard line before flipping a pass off the floor back to Conan. Furlong supports his compatriot and spots space around the fringes, his pick, go and trundle up-field breaking the Stormers. When the ball is then moved wide via Beirne, Jonny Hill and Beard, Cowan-Dickie clears the ruck:
Throughout the Lions pack there are adaptable attackers. Cowan-Dickie, Curry and Conan are comfortable out wide as well as in the tight exchanges. Even Itoje and Lawes will hug touchlines if required:
Furlong, Wyn Jones and Alun Wyn Jones are skilful passers capable of shifting the point of contact under pressure. Expect those three, plus Itoje, Lawes and Cowan-Dickie, to hold the middle for most of the time that the Lions spend in possession. Conan and Curry may have licence to roam more freely.
Carries per 80 minutes by the 2021 Lions
All of them can thrive off the shoulder of Price, a running scrum-half whose sniping should stunt South Africa’s suffocating line-speed.
These forwards are equally adaptable defenders. Wyn Jones, Cowan-Dickie, Itoje, Lawes, Curry and Conan are strong jackallers. Furlong and Alun Wyn Jones, as well as Lawes and Itoje, regularly win collisions. Conan has been especially effective at choke-tackling on tour.
Turnovers won per 80 minutes by 2021 Lions
Headlined by Kyle Sinckler, Beirne and Hamish Watson – three of the stand-out performers on this tour – the Lions’ bench contains similarly intelligent, effective operators. Gatland has a squad that can box clever against the might of South Africa.
Hogg-Daly double-act can run 15-metre channels
There is certain to be plenty of action out wide as the Lions test the nerve of South Africa wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, who lead the aggressive defensive system that Jacques Nienaber has embedded.
Expect the hosts to switch between a 14-1 defensive formation, with just full-back Willie le Roux in behind, and a 13-2 in which fly-half Handré Pollard monitors the other half of the back-field and shuts the door behind one of his wings. Faf de Klerk drops occasionally as well, but will also hunt the Lions’ playmakers.
The combination of both Elliot Daly and Stuart Hogg in the starting backline, at outside centre and full-back respectively, seems to be a clear indication of Gregor Townsend’s desire for the Lions to overcome the Springboks by imparting width.
Elliot Daly on the run against the Stormers
In a balanced line-up, both have steady hands to help out with defensive duties. Robbie Henshaw is a calm, tough decision-maker at inside centre beside Daly. Dan Biggar is phenomenal in the air and will surely drop back to help out Hogg.
Kicking exchanges are certain to shape this series. If Biggar’s catching frees up Hogg to counter, the Lions have the best of both worlds. Liam Williams is a safety net on the bench as part of a five-three split, and could come on at either wing or full-back.
In phase-play, the left foot of Daly can be a weapon in locating the pockets of space in behind South Africa. This moment, from last Wednesday, demonstrates how he can help out Biggar as a second playmaker.
The sequence starts with a De Klerk kick…
…that is fielded by Daly close to the touchline under pressure from Sbu Nkosi:
Daly does well to release an offload to Anthony Watson:
Watson probes South Africa A’s chase and, just a phase later, Daly has arced across the field to third-receiver. From there, a delicate chip turns Cheslin Kolbe:
Daly even follows up to help Louis Rees-Zammit complete the tackle:
This feels like something of a redemption story for both men. Hogg was dropped by Exeter Chiefs in the lead-up to the Premiership final. Daly endured a difficult Six Nations, but looks reborn.
They combined nicely for this try against Sigma Lions, Daly throwing a dummy towards Hogg to draw up the opposition wing before floating a pass to Josh Adams:
Here, against the Stormers, Hogg’s tip-on feeds Jonny Hill.
You will notice that the penultimate phase also sees Ali Price lift a short pass to a wandering Duhan van der Merwe. Watch out for those two at the tail of lineouts, where they work together for Scotland to punch holes:
Van der Merwe’s power is an obvious asset. Josh Adams has been in predatory form and is an intelligent defenders. However, he becomes the casualty of Gatland wanting to retain Anthony Watson’s pace on the other flank.
According to Opta, Van der Merwe and Watson have been the most likely to slip tackles this summer:
Most defenders beaten per carry by the 2021 Lions squad
As well as getting these dangerous runners on the field, though, balance has been a big concern.
Set-piece priorities and bench impact
Mako Vunipola’s eye-catching excellence off the bench against South Africa A and the Stormers has not been sufficient even for a bench spot. Rory Sutherland is the replacement loosehead, reflecting the importance of a robust scrum throughout this first Test, especially with South Africa holding back Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe.
Tadhg Beirne and Courtney Lawes are covering the second row, remember. There is no hefty tighthead lock on the bench to bolster the Lions. Two scrummaging looseheads were necessary.
Similarly, lineout ability could be one reason for Tom Curry being picked over Hamish Watson. The Lions have called a couple of the shift-drives that Scotland unfurled during the 2021 Six Nations. These could be effective in tying in the Springboks forwards before striking in midfield.
For this one against Sigma Lions, which eventually launched Bundee Aki, Curry is the surprise jumper:
Tom Curry lineout
The presence of Ken Owens, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell on the bench promises a different kind of impact. All three are veterans of the 2017 Test series. It is easy to envisage this game being within one score at the hour-mark. Murray and Farrell can add control.
With the latter at inside centre between Dan Biggar and Robbie Henshaw – a midfield combination glimpsed at Murrayfield against Japan – all bases are covered.
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber has continually stressed that the Lions will be able to play in a manner of ways. This 23 will not have changed his mind.