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Interesting Lions selection will challenge powerful Springboks

The British and Irish Lions take on the Springboks this Saturday at 5pm.

One thing is for sure, Lions head coach Warren Gatland has earned the right to pull a surprise every now and again. It’s probably wise to trust the judgement of a man that has won three Grand Slams, three Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup.

It’s even wiser to back him when it comes to the Lions Tour where he is yet to lose a series. Australia were put to the sword in 2013 and four years later he managed to tie the series against reigning World Cup champions New Zealand. As Brian O’Driscoll knows all too well, the 57-year-old is unafraid to make some ruthless calls, but time and time again he is vindicated. 

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Warren Gatland mixes and matches with surprise Lions team selection.

Everything about this tour has been classic Gatland. We no longer see him pop up on our television screens during the Six Nations, but it is blatantly obvious that he has not lost his old scheming ways. 

That much was clear from the moment Bundee Aki’s name flashed up on squad announcement day. Jack Conan. Zander Fagerson, Chris Harris and Johnny Hill followed in alphabetical order. The names of Johnny Sexton, CJ Stander, Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade, Johnny May and many other stars did not. 

The shocked reaction to the initial squad was something to behold but the decision to name Tadhg Beirne, Taulupe Faletau, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell on the bench for the first test is in many ways equally eye-brow raising. Gatland and his coaching team have crafted a starting fifteen that prioritises tactics and dynamics over individual quality or experience. 

Warren Gatland backs untested combinations against South Africa.

It’s a team that nobody would have predicted during the 2021 Six Nations yet it is a team that could well have the perfect weaponry to punish any chinks in the Springbok armour. It was always going to be a blockbuster battle but Gatland’s multi-dimensional, strategic selection means much more than a muscular onslaught now awaits. 

If there is one indisputable question mark over Gatland’s starting fifteen it is the fact that the centre-partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly have only started one game together on this tour. Most worryingly, Scotland’s Ali Price and Welsh outhalf Dan Biggar have only spent 20 minutes on the field together up until now. In contrast, Faf De Klerk and Handre Pollard have been a mainstay at halfback since Rassie Erasmus took charge of the ‘Boks, playing a key role in their 2019 Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup triumphs. 

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Courtney Lawes starts at blindside to match South Africa’s physicality.

Courtney Lawes starting at six instead of Tadhg Berine (who scored three tries and completed four turnovers in three starts) is another major talking point, but again, the logic makes sense. Although Gatland is setting up to play with variety and target South Africa’s supposed soft spots out-wide, there is an equal need to include battle-hardened brutes to defend against the ferocious attack about to be rammed down the Lions’ throats. 

Lawes’ dirty work is likely to perform as an enabler for Jack Conan and Tom Curry to make inroads down the 15-metre channels while hooker Luke Cowan Dickie (3 turnovers Vs Stormers) is backed to compensate for Beirne’s absence. On paper Tadhg Beirne and Jamie George might read as better options, but in practise, a cohesive unit with various elements is a necessity if the Lions are to stand a chance in Cape Town. 

Warren-Gatland-Rassie-Erasmus

Rassie’s formidable South Africa side pack a powerful punch.

South Africa’s Rugby World Cup success means that they head into this clash with a XV of established household names. 

The daunting second row pair of Eben Etzebeth (6’7 and 117kg) and Franco Mostert (6’5 and 112kg) are at the team’s nucleus. Six-foot-six 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter Steph-du Toit at blindside flanker isn’t half bad either and, complemented by the engine of captain Siya Kolisi and hard-hitting number eight Kwagga Smith, the Springboks boast the most extraordinary of forward packs. 

Munster’s Damian De Allende and his centre partner Lukhanyo Am won’t be found wanting for power either – but it’s important to note there’s more to the home nation than that. 

What makes South Africa so incredibly good is not just the power of their carries, but the tempo and frequency of them.

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South Africa’s tempo will make life difficult for the tourists.

Five-foot-seven duracell bunny Faf De Klerk is the 200 BPM metronome behind the heavy-metal rugby and his rhythm injects extra energy, exuberance and impact into every collision. Five-foot-five substitute scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies is cut from similar cloth as Erasmus identifies that playing power-driven rugby no longer has to result in slow-tempo arm-wrestles, but rather eighty-minutes of Formula One car crashes. 

The catalytic scrumhalf is becoming a prominent trend in modern rugby and on Saturday evening we’ll see the best of the breed at work. 

Faf-de-klerk-Lions

Cheslin Kolbe can be the difference maker for South Africa.

South Africa showed in the World Cup that maximising the nuts and bolts of the game accurately and aggressively can go a long way – especially when you possess that kind of brute force. The Lions can take some confidence from their display against a South Africa ‘A’ side full of Springboks in which they competed admirably at the set-piece, but will know full well another level of intensity awaits in the test series. 

No doubt, the more the Lions are drawn to the constant chaotic battering of their defensive line, the more the South Africans will dip into their bag of tricks. Cheslin Kolbe only needs an inch of space to cut through a defence like a knife through butter so the more the tourists are sucked towards the ruck area, the happier Erasmus will be. 

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Lions look to hurt the Springboks in the wide channels.

On the flip side, the Lions look set to try and execute something similar by penetrating the two touch-lines. One issue existent in Jacques Nienaber’s famous defensive system is that it leaves wingers with instinctive decisions to make and his typically inward rush-defence can leave space on the flanks. 

The All Blacks exploited it in the World Cup pool stages with Seevu Reece the benefactor of some well-measured cross-field kicks and the Scarlets did something similar to Nienaber’s Munster in the 2017 PRO12 final.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Conan, Van Der Merwe and Watson get their hands on the ball regularly close to the touchline, be it catching cross-kicks or at the end of multiple phases. Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly will need to assist the tight-five in their breakdown efforts to accommodate for the back row and help the tactic to come up trumps.

Without their contribution the Lions could easily get beaten up down the middle before they ever get the chance to play around the Springboks.

Jack Conan Lions

Expect a big performance from the Lions but it might not be enough.

Gatland aims to match the South Africans’ physicality before punishing them with variety and width. His strategy appears to revolve around being competitive in the contact zone and allowing his team to attack around the Springboks with a dynamic collage of players with different traits and attributes.

It would be no surprise if the Lions make an excellent account of themselves by running the Springboks close with a refreshing brand of intelligent rugby. But will it be enough? 

Erasmus will make no apologies for trying to beat up the Lions plain and simple – if they’re as accurate and energetic as they so often are then it’s a real possibility. The difference between the two teams is that South Africa can do everything that the Lions can do but with extra muscle.

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Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

As much as the Lions approach this game well prepared with Jack Conan potentially the key man on attack, the very nature of the Springboks’ viscous flurries of ball-carrying will afford them equally good opportunities to punish the Lions out wide and beat them at their own game. Scarily, their wideman is not Jack Conan, but arguably the greatest player on the planet, Cheslin Kolbe. 

South Africa could make some last-minute defensive tweaks to halt the Lions’ game-plan but no instructions can prepare the Lions defence for the vigorous passion and power about to greet them in every single collision. 

Twelve years ago, South Africa pushed the British and Irish Lions to the limits of human endurance in Pretoria in what was one of the greatest games ever played.

If Saturday evening is anything close to that then we are in for a hell of a treat. 

South Africa: Le Roux; Kolbe, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Nche, Mbonambi, Nyakane, Etzebeth, Mostert, Kolisi (capt), Du Toit, Smith

Replacements: Marx, Kitshoff, Malherbe, De Jager, Elstadt, H Jantjies, E Jantjies, Willemse 

Lions: A Watson, Daly, Henshaw, Van Der Merwe; Biggar, Price; W Jones, Cowan-Dickie, Furlong, Itoje, AW Jones (capt), Lawes, Curry, Conan.

Replacements: Owens, Sutherland, Sinckler, Beirne, H Watson, Murray, Farrell, L Williams.

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