Warren Gatland has picked Conor Murray to start at scrum-half with Taulupe Faletau joining the replacements

Credit: Getty Images/AFP

A victory with aspects of your team’s performance to improve is a dream situation for coaches and precisely what Warren Gatland and his British and Irish Lions staff encountered after a 22-17 win over South Africa.

Still, making unenforced and significant changes to the match-day squad – introducing three new starters with more tweaks among the replacements – has required conviction and no little courage. Now it is up to Gatland’s players to seal the series.

Vunipola’s pedigree wins out

Mako Vunipola has now appeared in a total of 74 Test matches for England and the British and Irish Lions, starting 40 of them and coming off the bench in 34.

You can split his international career into two distinct phases. Before being handed the number one jersey by Eddie Jones for a Grand Slam opportunity at the Stade de France in 2016, he had started just seven of his 34 Tests. 

Lions team to face South Africa in second Test

Since then, and despite enduring a difficult first period before Joe Marler replaced him at half-time of that England victory over Les Bleus five years ago, Vunipola senior has started 33 of 40 Tests. 

For that reason, his impact as an energetic replacement on this Lions tour has felt like something of a throwback. For the same reason, and because of his trophy-laden exploits with Saracens, Gatland will feel confident that Vunipola will deliver on Saturday.

Rory Sutherland is the casualty of some early teething problems at the scrum. He was penalised in the 10th minute of the first Test, assistant referee Mathieu Raynal spotting an offence as he slipped on an unstable surface:

In the 12th minute, Berry awarded South Africa a free-kick after he deemed that the Lions had closed the gap prior to the hosts’ put-in:

The tourists did win a penalty on their own feed, but conceded one on the stroke of half-time. At the first attempt, the scrum collapses and Siya Kolisi points out that Sutherland’s elbow is on the floor:

Berry orders a re-set, and speaks to South Africa tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane. He then tells Sutherland: “Keep that elbow up”. Read the lips of Bongi Mbonambi as the Springboks bind up. The hooker shouts “elbow” to reinforce the message to Berry:

Lions second Test 1

When the scrum folds again, Berry penalises Sutherland for “hinging” and going “straight to ground”. This is his view:

Lions second Test selection 2

At half-time, South Africa replaced their entire front row and introduced Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe. Now, it is important to stress two things. First, Sutherland spent 17 minutes against this trio and helped the Lions back to 17-16 from 12-3 behind. 

Secondly, Vunipola will have benefited from the collective fatigue of South Africa’s pack. Lood de Jager, the replacement lock who joined Eben Etzebeth in the engine room, was short of match action. 

Even accounting for those factors, Vunipola impressed. Two scrums within a minute at the start of the final quarter summed up his impact. Here, he is rock-solid on South Africa’s put-in. The hosts keep the ball in the set piece for a while in a bid to milk an infringement, but cannot:

A minute later, this shove on the Lions’ put-in earns a pressure-relieving penalty:

lions Test selection 5

The addition of Vunipola reunites him with Tadhg Furlong, with whom he shared a strong relationship on the 2017 tour of New Zealand. It means that five of the Lions starting pack – Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry – started England’s win over Italy in the recent Six Nations. There is cohesion.

Vunipola’s challenge will be to match his robust set-piece work with trademark mobility in the loose. His handling and distribution should help the Lions impart width where necessary, particularly given their backline is not full of passers.

Remarkably, Vunipola did not touch the ball once during his cameo on Saturday. His defence was superb in the final 90 seconds, though.

Indeed, this second-half moment from the Lions’ loss to South Africa A, sums up his tour so far. As Curry charges down Faf de Klerk, note the position of Vunipola. After this screengrab, Damian Willemse gathers the loose ball and feeds Cheslin Kolbe…

…but a trademark shuffle cannot beat the Lions loosehead prop:

Lions Test selection 4

According to Opta, Vunipola has conceded a total of 14 scrum penalties in 44 Test appearances since Rugby World Cup 2015. Four of those did come over the final two Six Nations matches this year, against France and Ireland, but Gatland is satisfied that Robin McBryde has helped Vunipola rediscover his scrummaging mojo.

Russ Petty outlined another remarkable statistic over the weekend. Only 10 players in history have featured in Lions Test victories over Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Won Lions Tests v Australia, New Zealand and South Africa:

Alun Wyn Jones, Conor Murray, Ieuan Evans, Jason Leonard, Jerry Guscott, Mako Vunipola, Martin Johnson, Owen Farrell, Rhys Williams, Tony O'Reilly

— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) July 24, 2021

Four members of this special club are in the match-day 23 for the second Test in 2021. Vunipola is one of them, and returns to start – as does scrum-half Conor Murray.

A starting backline to kick and contain?

Price’s box-kicking at the start of the second half sparked the Lions’ comeback. Given the topsy-turvy nature of the first Test, it would be easy to forget that the Scotland scrum-half was accurate from the boot throughout.

This hoist on to the head of Handé Pollard in the second minute earned around 35 metres for the Lions, Curry chasing and forcing South Africa’s fly-half into touch for a turnover:

Price box

Murray’s selection to start feels extremely tough on Price, but the former exuded calm and control on joining the fray in the first Test. This strike was chased by Anthony Watson…

…before being spilled by Makazole Mapimpi…

…which allows Robbie Henshaw to regather:

The Lions did not relinquish possession until they had gone 22-17 ahead. Sturdy defence is an asset of Murray’s that will allow the Lions to maintain width in their front line and Chris Harris is a more solid option at outside centre than Elliot Daly, who drops to the bench. More on that later.

Missed tackles are not always a particularly relevant statistic, because one must evaluate the outcome of each event. However, as well as conceding two defensive penalties, Daly was shrugged off three times in the first Test. Some of these missed tackles surrendered momentum. 

Here, for instance, Kwagga Smith catches a Lions restart…

…and although Daly arrives and connects with his left shoulder…

…the Saracen cannot hold on:

Foiled by their own ill-discipline, clunky interplay and a tone-setting tackle by Lukhanyo Am on Daly, the Lions’ brightest attacking moments in the first half came from the playmaking of Stuart Hogg.

Here, he makes use of the short side from second-receiver to create a half-break for Jack Conan:

lions Test selection 5

And a pull-back to Dan Biggar from first-receiver on the stroke of half-time led to Henshaw charging into Springboks territory:

HOgg pass

There will be onus on the Biggar-Hogg axis to spread the ball, because the Henshaw-Harris midfield collaboration is another brand-new centre partnership. That said, Harris has shown invention on this trip.

Expect plenty of contestable kicking, though, at least until Gatland empties his bench.

A bench to pick off weary opponents

Gatland has praised the running game of Price, which could prove a trump card if South Africa tire as they did in the series-opener.

It is for a similar reason, one must think, that Taulupe Faletau replaces the unfortunate Hamish Watson on the bench. Even if that decision makes it more likely that Curry will have to last 80 minutes, Faletau’s dynamism and dexterity should allow the Lions to stretch their opponents late on.

Tadhg Beirne has offloaded seven times from 34 carries for the Lions this summer. That is an eye-catching ratio. While his defence was in the spotlight during his first-Test cameo, the rangy Munster forward can torment South Africa if the Lions keep possession.

Owen Farrell is retained in the 22 shirt. Interestingly, though, Daly wears 23 instead of Liam Williams. That is a proactive move that offers more possibilities. The Lions now have a myriad of potential midfield configurations.

After starting with Biggar-Henshaw-Harris, should the Wales fly-half passes the concussion protocols, they could change to Biggar-Farrell-Harris, Biggar-Farrell-Henshaw, Farrell-Henshaw-Harris or Farrell-Henshaw-Daly.

Daly will cover the back three and his versatility remains valuable. For all the talk of him moving to his favoured position of outside centre, his most accomplished performance this summer has been at full-back against South Africa A.

From there, if the Lions stay bold in the second half, his left foot and outside break may provide ways of manipulating the hosts.