- Lifestyle & Sports
- 13 Jul 21
Since the turbulence of last week and the double fixture with the Sharks, the Lions have been consolidating their setup. The Home Nations are buoyed by some new inclusions and a possible comeback for warhorse Alun Wyn Jones as the Springboks scramble for match fitness.
Hail, wind, rain and snow. The British and Irish Lions left the Covid chaos behind in their lodgings in Gauteng, 71-31 after victory over the Cell C Sharks, only to be greeted by a winter storm that was pummelling the province of Western Cape on Sunday night.
Having left five of the touring party, including one player, behind in Jo’burg, it’s time for Warren Gatland and co to batten down the hatches ahead of the crunch clash with South Africa A. (AKA the shadow 'Bok test side).
For the Springboks, Rassie Erasmus has named 18 world cup winners in his squad for the clash, seven of whom started in the final against England. The team is practically a full Springboks squad, then – minus the players who are currently isolating.
Rassie’s hand has been forced somewhat, as he desperately needs to get his players match fit for the first test proper. But might he risk giving too much away?
The former Munster director of rugby has already bemoaned the Springboks lack of preparation, as – with some players showing symptoms – they missed a week’s training and a test against Georgia.
He’s not getting the second hit-out against the Lions he wished for, instead having to contend with a challenge against the Vodacom Bulls who should have played the Lions on Saturday, but for Covid.
For the Lions, Gats pointed to the first test during the last Lions tour of South Africa in 2009 to sum up the potential significance of tomorrow’s game. Gatland admitted that the touring side thought they were better prepared going into that first test, only to be caught with their trousers down. Despite having won all of their warm up games, the Lions crumbled to a 26-21 defeat in Durban. So the importance of quality preparation cannot be overstated...
Either way, we’re at the business end now: it’s starting to get serious.
Bring In The Reinforcements!
The Philippines-born English out-half Marcus Smith has arrived in Cape Town after a whirlwind couple of weeks for the 22-year old. He provides injury cover for Finn Russel, who is looking increasingly doubtful as a test starter, with his troublesome achilles injury.
Smith made his first start for the Red Rose against the USA in a 43-29 victory over the USA and, two days ago, oversaw a 70-14 victory over Canada, before his call-up was announced.
What a year he’s been having.
Gats says there’s a good chance he will play at the weekend, which sounds like confirmation that he’s not just there to make up the numbers. Smith was excellent for Harlequins in the Premiership this year and steered them to the championship after they looked dead and buried at Christmas.
His inclusion makes the race for the 10 jersey very intriguing indeed.
Our man Ronan Kelleher is also slated to jet out to South Africa to provide injury cover at hooker, although none of the current crop is injured. Kelleher’s inclusion is, apparently, a precaution – but one that makes sense.
Due of Covid, an injury replacement would take a few days to make it to the squad – and if the Lions had to field without a hooker, that'd effectively be the end of the test as a contest.
It's worth noting that Kelleher scored a whopping four tries and won Player of the Match against the USA on Saturday, as Ireland marched to a 71-10 victory over the Eagles. He is in form and might therefore feel that he can push the three men ahead of him in what is his second call-up to the squad. The Leinster man trained with the touring party in Jersey, before they flew for Gauteng.
Nothing has been confirmed, but the word is out that Welch second-row and original Lions captain for this tour, Alun Wyn, is also set to return.
World Rugby’s most capped player ever is miraculously back training with Wales, after sustaining a dislocated shoulder less than ten minutes into the game against Japan.
Gats says a decision will be made on his inclusion today, after he completes a session with the Welsh team. It’s action-movie stuff. But what would his return mean for the squad, and to new tour captain Conor Murray? That remains to be seen.
The Fourth Test – Sort Of
No matter what happens on that front, this run-out could be the most dramatic of the tour to date.
Bryan Habana alluded to the fact the Lions have had it easy so far. Fair point. They’re playing teams that are currently competing in the Currie Cup and who are also missing their Springboks. Resources are stretched. This will be different – and as a result, Habana infers, it might be spicy.
The cricket scores the Lions have been running up are disproportionate. However, a rout of that nature against the Springboks (sorry South Africa A) is off the table.
But this match isn’t just about the final score: it’s a chance for players in both camps to nail places down as test starters.
In fairness, each and every Lion has had a chance to impress Gats – but the participation medals have all been handed out. It’s about winners – or potential winners – now.
That makes it a huge night for the Lions’ pack, all eight of whom will be under close scrutiny. Will they successfully impose themselves on a very experienced Springbok forward contingent? Gats has said he’s taking one game at a time, but if any individual player lets the ollective down, it'll be 'Sorry, no test for you, mate'…
“Go out and play your own game and enjoy it,” as Gats would say, it might be your last.
So what can we expect exactly?
It’s going to be physical, it’s going to be attritional and it might even get bloody. The Springboks will be like a coiled spring after not training for six days and isolating for huge chunks of that. They will be chomping at the bit to send the Lions a message. Whether they'll have the reserves that'll be needed is a different matter.
With Erasmus putting so much emphasis on how they need match fitness, I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to use this first and foremost as an intense fitness session. With the Lions acting as tackling bags.
With that in mind, we could well see each player emptying the tank aggressively, before Rassie empties the bench to get as many players up to speed as quickly as possible.
Gatland has said he’s delighted with the South Africa A that's been named and he’s right to be. It’s an early acid test for this crop of players. So let's wait and see how we rate their previous trouncing of understrength opposition, at the end of 80 minutes of collision heavy rugby.
Unrest in SA
The backdrop is sadly not a propitious one. Tomorrow’s game will be played amidst massive unrest, which has erupted throughout the Rainbow Nation, snd featured some of the worst violence seen in the country in years.
As crowds clash with police, riots and protests – triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court in June – have spread across many parts of the country.
On a deeper level, the protests are an outpouring of anger over persistent inequality, 27 years after the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
The protests began in Jacob Zuma’s native KwaZulu-Natal province and swept to Gauteng, where the Lions had previously been staying. Soldiers have been deployed on the streets, but a state of emergency has not yet been announced.
The hope is that the game will not be completely overshadowed. However, we are once again reminded of the irrelevance of sport when real life intervenes.
Our Irish Lions
Bundee Aki doesn’t need to convince Gats of his quality – it’s his style of play that counts here. Aki is the strongest, most aggressive and most physically capable back at the Lions' disposal. But he needs to show the coaching staff that this is what they need against the 'Boks.
For Conor Murray, tomorrow is probably more about not getting injured than anything else. Gareth Davies all but played himself out of contention on Saturday last, and Ali Price doesn’t provide the same calm from the base of the ruck. It’s an exciting time for Murray. His planned partnership with fly-half Dan Biggar should work well .
While the potential return of Alun-Wyn makes things interesting at second-row, Ireland's Iain Henderson is packing down beside England darling, Maro Itoje, and has been impressive on tour so far. Alun-Wyn is surely a starter if he returns. It’s then a question of who should partner him. It’d be a big call not to start Itoje, but my view is that Henderson has outperformed him all season. The Irishman now needs to make sure tomorrow that he shows Gatland who's the real second-row boss.
Tadhg Beirne gets to test himself against a Springbok pack that will be well aware of the threat he represents, when he comes off the bench. The conversation surrounding the Kildare man will surely have Etzebeth and the rest bristling and ready to dampen the flames. If they can.
The Business End
The fireworks are set and ready to be lit. Tomorrow's joust may be strewn with errors, as one side continues to gel and the other works off the rust. But it will be intense.
We'll get to see how far along both sides are, and what more they need to do. But most importantly it’s poised to be a cracker.
We’re coming to the bottle neck end of the tour. Someone had better get ready to be squeezed...
• The British and Irish Lions play South Africa A tomorrow at 7pm on Sky Sports.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 13 Oct 21