British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has some changes to ponder
The Lions’ second row partnership of Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones is unstoppable at this point (unless Covid somehow gets in there to break them up), but even after winning the first Test in Cape Town there are still a few positional tweaks for the Lions to consider. Some selections worked well, some less so.
Warren Gatland afterwards admitted the composition of the side for the second Test would be looked at and that there were “a lot of players putting their hands up”, while suggesting that the Lions may look at “different combinations or players”. Here’s who his mind may have been on in the moments after an impressive comeback to win in the first Test.
Attacking opportunities were scarce for all three of Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe, with contesting high kicks the order of the day. Hogg kicked well but was shunted all over the backfield defensively by the Springboks kicking game, catching Hogg out when he rushed up or wide to cover. All in all, Hogg was good and can deliver more.
Watson performed well and should be retained, but there were limited opportunities for Van der Merwe to carry powerfully. Would Josh Adams have fared better? There was outcry in Wales over his omission in the week.
Liam Williams and Adams will push hard, but the Lions may end up sticking here with the same trio, who rather than winning back those 50-50 balls predominantly through clean catches seemed to opt to try and bat the ball backwards or down to a waiting forward, normally Courtney Lawes, in the second half. It worked, but it wasn’t perfect. You could easily bring in Williams on the wing for a bit more security.
Duhan van der Merwe, right, of British and Irish Lions in action against Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa under the high ball
Bringing on Owen Farrell to close out the game made sense, and he did land the final penalty, but there were some ropey touches in there.
Elliot Daly has enjoyed space in midfield to create those outside breaks and shine in attack throughout this tour, but South Africa’s rush defence was less generous, with Lukanyo Am clattering him into another dimension in the opening minutes.
The Lions could twist here and opt for a more robust partner for the hard-working Robbie Henshaw – Bundee Aki or Chris Harris are available – or they could stick with a Farrell-Henshaw pairing. Harris’ defensive skills still appeal and he could come into the XV, particularly if…
…Farrell is needed to play fly-half depending on how Biggar comes through the HIA protocols, after going off and not returning in the second half. Finn Russell is still working his way back to full fitness, and Marcus Smith is out in South Africa after a special season, but Farrell remains top of the pecking order (if Biggar is out) for his Lions Test experience alone.
As for Ali Price, he was much better in the second half and the right selection after his form in the warm-up fixtures. Gareth Davies failed to do enough to crack the Test 23 and doesn’t need to come in. But Conor Murray’s experience and kicking game may sway Gatland and the Lions coaches with a potential series win on the line. You could easily stick with Price, however.
Ali Price, the British and Irish Lions scrum-half
Credit: GETTY IMAGEs
It’s almost more interesting to wonder which front row South Africa will go with next week. Props Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane comfortably outperformed their replacements Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, despite the latter looking imperious against Georgia recently. Nyakane in particular squeezed scrum penalties out of Rory Sutherland, while Tadhg Furlong looked uncomfortable at times facing Nche.
That changed after half-time when the Boks swapped their front row. The scrums barely moved an inch, while Mako Vunipola earning a penalty against Malherbe felt like a turning point. Vunipola could certainly start next week, depending on the fitness of Wyn Jones’ minor shoulder injury. If Jones is fit, does he come straight back in? And does Vunipola’s impact in the first Test mean he nabs the bench spot over Sutherland? Let’s assume Jones is going to be fit, and starts.
As for hooker, the Lions lineout was good with Cowan-Dickie on the field and led to the Lions’ only try through a rolling maul. Ken Owens in true ‘cannonball Ken’ fashion was excellent from the bench, and it’s worth noting that Jamie George, the starter in New Zealand, didn’t even make the matchday 23.
It’s another tight call for that No 2 shirt and the Lions may stay put, hoping again to combine Cowan-Dickie’s physicality with the energy of Owens, even though George is arguably the best lineout thrower of the lot.
Courtney Lawes isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure. Tom Curry and Jack Conan meanwhile are more interesting cases.
Curry’s rash of ill discipline at the start of the first Test was the last thing the Lions needed. The breakdown penalty for not rolling away was unfortunate but the late shot on De Klerk, that was careless. As a result it left the Springboks in a commanding position on the scoreboard. Curry certainly improved, and Hamish Watson was lucky not to see yellow for his tip tackle on Le Roux after replacing the England flanker having come off the bench, otherwise playing well.
Both Curry and Watson have been hailed for their jackalling but the Lions’ most effective operator in that regard was actually Itoje, although Curry did grab a couple.
Conan has impressed throughout the tour with his energy and work rate, but failed to cross the gain line here as much as we have seen in past matches. Given Taulupe Faletau is waiting in the wings, there’s real pressure on the Ireland back-row to keep his place.
You could see Gatland leaning towards a player he knows so well in Faletau to try and clinch the series. Don’t rule out a six-two split either on the bench, using one of Williams or Daly as the utility back. Daly of course covers all three of centre, wing and full-back.
Potential Lions XV for the second Test
S Hogg; A Watson, C Harris*, R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; O Farrell*, A Price; W Jones, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong, M Itoje, A Jones (c), C Lawes, T Curry, T Faletau
K Owens, M Vunipola, K Sinckler, T Beirne, H Watson, J Conan, C Murray, L Williams
*if Biggar not fit, otherwise 10 Biggar, 12 Farrell, 13 Henshaw with Harris dropping out of the 23