- 23 Jul 21
With both sides naming their squads early for Saturday’s first test fixture in South Africa, Gats and Rassie have been trading insults. On the player front, Alun Wyn has returned and South Africa are back to full-strength. Conor Murray is out and Ali Price is in. It’s all to play for. So who will gain the upper hand in the first test?
The dogs are barking, even before the muzzles are undone and the 'Boks can bare their teeth.
Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus have been locked in a spikey back and forth since South Africa A beat the British and Irish Lions 17-13 just over a week ago. As the verbal swashbuckling has developed into all-out psychological warfare, both sides are in effect priming themselves for the physical demands of no-holds-barred test series rugby.
The question on everyone's lips, inevitably, is: who is going to win?
Gatland commented that he wanted “consistency” in the refereeing. He was unhappy with a tackle by Faf De Klerk last Wednesday. This is typical grist to the pre-Test mill. In response, Rassie turned from waterboy to keyboard warrior, taking to Twitter to highlight two Owen Farrell tackles he deemed questionable during the game. He also wants the refs to be, “100% sure and aligned.”
Yeah, right: we all want referees to do the right thing – as long as it is in our favour!
It may seem petulant by Erasmus and whiny by Gatland. But it’s all about worming your perspective into the ref’s mind, in order to gain the kind of small advantage that might swing a decision one way or the other.
The head honchos are also flexing their mental muscles, to play as best they can on the other’s mind.
Rassie and head coach Jacques Nienaber named their team a day early. They insisted there were no mind games involved, they were just being open and transparent.
It also coincidentally followed the news that Gatland would announce his Lions starting XV within the camp on Monday with the official announcement due on Thursday. Gats subsequently moved that announcement forward, after the side was leaked. The Kiwi was clearly furious, smelling a rat. Just who might that be? Answers on a postcard, please.
What does any of this mean? Who knows! The game of chess continues, long before the game of rugby begins.
Beyond the mumbo-jumbo of psychoanalysis, some very real facts have come to light. The teams have been named, the tests have been moved and the wait is almost over. With Alun-Wyn back, stand-in captain Conor Murray is relegated to the bench (don’t cry, I know it’s hard). The Lions team boasts a fair representation of each home nation, though only three Irish will start. So what can we expect from test 1?
Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove
For a start, we have some big chunky boys lining up for the Boks.
The cynical might suggest that the 'Boks have named a typically confrontational pack, but the self-evident brawn is complemented by intelligence. Kwaga Smith is a surprise inclusion for many, but the number 8 is a very shrewd operator indeed. His ability to read the game and organise a defence will help to get the most available out of the hulking forward pack.
The return of captain Siya Kolisi after his Covid-induced absence will be a massive boost. He epitomises what South African rugby is currently about: honesty, bravery and a selfless commitment to putting one's body on the line. With barnstorming hit-maker Pietr Steph Du Toit completing the back row, the trio are likely to cause havoc among the Lions.
The tight five selected for the 'Boks are an experienced bunch, with the exception of OX Nché, who is earning only his 3rd cap. The pacey loose-head will be supported by the incomparable Bongi Mbonambe, who is crucial to the 'Boks, for both his line-out throwing and work around the park.
Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth will drive the front-row, whilst offering their considerable grunt in each and every ruck. Etzebeth is volatile – however, he will relish facing off with Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones. This may be the most intriguing mini-battle of all.
Nienaber has opted for the same back-line that started the World Cup final. Handré Pollard returns, complete with his flawless kicking and game management. However, the fear remains that he may be undercooked after a season spent sidelined with an ACL injury as well as recent Covid issues.
If those fears are borne out, then the Lions should capitalise.
Sleight of Hand and Dynamism
In contrast, the Lions selection has offered up a few surprises.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” Gatland said during the week. Interestingly, however, the consensus seems to be that he has gotten it right. I tend to agree.
Ali Price comes in at 9, after playing very well against the Stormers. It was, in my view, the best performance from any scrum-half during the tour so far. Interestingly, however, Murray’s role on the bench may be even more crucial than Price’s.
Price offers more speed than Murray. However, Murray’s commanding presence will be needed later on, when the game slows down and mistakes are otherwise starting to pile up. I expect him to come on 50 minutes in, if not earlier, depending on how well Price’s particular brand of scrum-half play works.
The back three offer a truly mouth-watering prospect. The exclusion of Josh Adams from the squad is surprising but it would be hard to discount DVDM’s rampaging runs. He should give the Lions go forward out wide when needed, but he will need more than pure size and aggression to win the impending battle against Kolbe.
Stuart Hogg is Gats’ wildcard. The Scotsman is as slippery, unpredictable and dazzling as they come. His kicking game will be crucial, perhaps even more so than his attacking guile. As a fullback himself, Anthony Watson will offer Hogg support in covering the backfield as well as pace and power in attack. That he is such a sublime rugby player only adds to the feeling of expectation.
Henshaw and Daly are the midfield partners, as the Athlone man makes his first test start for the Lions. Henshaw’s ability to cover 12 and 13 should help Daly through what will be a testing evening for both, but Daly is also very capable. His kicking and attacking threat will keep De Allende and Am honest.
The pack has a dynamic look on the page. Each of the 8 is a competent carrier; and collectively, they offer some real oomph in defence.
Courtney Lawes is chosen over Tadhg Beirne, which must have been a close call, but the hard-hitting Englishman is one of the few Lions capable of making the 'Bok ball carriers nervous.
Alun Wyn Jones completes his remarkable recovery in what will be his 10th test cap as a Lion. He is the most capped Lion of the professional era and holds the most international caps of all time with 157. He and Itoje will need to bristle, barge and bully their way through a hungry Springbok pack. They might just be able to do it, but I wouldn't bet the house on it.
Jack Conan deservedly earns his place at the back of the scrum. The Wicklow man has scarcely put a foot wrong all tour and has used those dancer's feet of his, to jink and juke past opposition. Hopefully, we'll see more of the same tomorrow.
It’s a very dynamic team, but also one with footballing intelligence. With bench players like Owen Farrell, Liam Williams, Hamish Watson and Tadhg Beirne charged and ready to rumble, the 'Boks will have their defence tested, and their hands full. Experience-wise the Lions have the edge as the squad boasts 1,328 international caps combined, compared with the Boks 777.
But will that be enough to counteract the Springboks apparent physical advantage? That is the sixty thousand million rand question!
Our Irish Lions.
The Irish contingent can be pleased with their involvement in the 1st test squad, as Gats elected to more-or-less fairly represent each of the home nations with 5 Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen each featuring, and 7 Englishmen chosen to represent the Lions.
- Tadhg Furlong gets the chance to stamp himself as possibly the best tight-head in the world on Saturday. Up against the relatively inexperienced Ox Nché, his elite scrummaging could prove a pivotal tool in the Lions' arsenal. The Wexford man is all heart but backs it up with titanic ability.
- Jack Conan earns himself a rightful spot in rugby’s top tier. The Leinsterman has been excellent all tour and has done well to shift Taulupe Faletau’s significant weight to start. An ever-willing competitor with buckets of energy and bags of ability, he will cherish this opportunity to steam into the Boks.
- Robbie Henshaw has earned his place. Doubts has been cast over his involvement, with his hamstring strain and Chris Harris’ excellent form. However, his power in the tackle and the attacking ability he has added to his game in recent years make him a go-to man for the men in red.
- Tadhg Beirne is unfortunate to miss out on a starting spot, but his role from the bench is potentially crucial. He offers more in attack than Lawes and after his counterpart has dished out his beautiful cocktail of power, aggression and nerve-jarring collisions, Beirne will be primed to dive into the challenge of hammering the world champions.
- Conor Murray will be disappointed with his relegation to the bench. But the Munster man should thrive in a setting where the brutal 'Boks tire and the game slows down in the second half.
Let's hope he scores a few big hits!
Rehearsals are Over, the Stage is Set.
Finally, we’re down to the nitty gritty, attritional battles of the games that really count.
So much doubt has surrounded this series, but here we are. The work is done. The Lions have gelled as well as they can, the 'Boks are as fit as they will get. Gats has guided the players as much as he can and Rassie has his water bottles filled up.
One. More. Day.
Whether you're a Lions fan, a Springbok fan or simply a rugby fan, Saturday is what this great game is all about. Two highly charged, highly motivated teams at the peak of their powers facing off to pummel one another for all of 80 minutes and a bit more into the bargain. Snarling, spitting, straining every nerve and never, ever stopping before the referee blows his whistle and someone emerges victorious: these are the scenes to which we can look forward.
On Saturday, the wait is over. Let's get down and dirty!