Ben Kay: The squad I'd pick for the final Test
These first two Test haven’t been short on talking points but sadly not for all the right reasons because the quality of the rugby has been really poor. It has shown up how much we miss crowds. Can you imagine the atmosphere in the past few weeks with fans packed to the rafters? It would have made up for deficiencies on the field as we head into the decider.
Ironically, I thought the Second Test had similarities to the first Test in that, like the Boks, in the first-half the Lions were dominant but didn’t get enough points on the board, and after the break the Lions game just fell apart. There’s an old adage in sport that it’s better to be on the shoulder in second place coming round the bend than in first so you have a target to chase and that’s rang true for both sides so far.
It wasn’t all bad from the Lions, in the first-half they targeted Willie Le Roux in the air, and gained a bit of momentum with their ball-carrying but in the second-half they played into South Africa’s hands by being unable to stop the scrum and lineout drives and an inability to deal with the bombardment aerially.
Here’s what I made of the action…
Game defining moments either side of the break
If Robbie Henshaw’s try had been given, the Lions would have gone in at half-time 19-6 up and in the driving seat but Siya Kolisi’s miraculous intervention did enough to get the referee to say the on-field decision was ‘no try’. He and the TMO had to be clear they could see the ball touching the ground and I think the officials got that spot-on.
The build-up to Makazole Mapimpi’s try reminded me of something we used to do in the dark ages with Leicester. When we were down at half-time, a way of finding our way back into the game was through the driving maul. As defenders, you can feel helpless because you can’t stop it legally and the opposition start to fear you. After the break, that was the Boks gameplan in a nutshell. They won a penalty at the scrum, kicked to the 22 and then executed a brilliant lineout drive. It was a tough to get going, but they set before the Lions and gained some momentum. The Lions struggled with decision making under pressure when the ball went to their big carriers like Jasper Wiese and Eben Etzebeth and it forced the Lions to overly focus on what was in front of them and they got narrow defensively. Pollard did a great job of spotting that and finding Mapimpi with a perfectly weighted kick to canter in. In that one moment, they showed they’d wrestled control of the game.
Among many areas of concern was the set-piece, particularly when Rory Sutherland entered the fray. The scrum started creaking and as that unfolded, doubts start appearing, players would have been like, ‘Oh Christ, I hope we don’t have another scrum’ because it’s in trouble. It affects the psychology out wide because backs are thinking, ‘if I risk throwing that miracle pass here and it doesn’t come off, we’re at a disadvantage at scrum time’.
Elsewhere, the back three were really poor under the high ball. As a forward pack, every time the ball went up it was heart in mouth time. The worst thing that can happen to back three players is to hesitate, but having spilt a couple, the pressure got to them and they got their timing wrong, even leaping in the wrong place. Credit must go to the Springboks for their calm execution of those pin-point kicks.
Often in the Northern Hemisphere opportunities like the one Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am’s aren’t taken because forwards are having such fun dominating opposition packs that their eyes are all focused inwards so they don’t spot the space out wide or in behind. Both their tries came from half-backs spotting over-committing defenders, leaving space to exploit and both came from lineout drives, which you have to applaud. For their second try, they probably saved Owen Farrell going to the bin because he came in at the side of the maul when they were rumbling towards the line. The referee was playing advantage for that when the De Klerk kick pierced the defence.
After such little rugby, many were expecting fatigue from South Africa but it was the other way round as the game wore on. An example was the Lions locks. In the first-half were absolutely superb but after the break Alun Wyn Jones, in particular fell away. That’s totally understandable given his lack of preparation but with the benefit of hindsight, should Gatland have kept him on for 80 in that first Test?
Meanwhile, Mostert, De Jager and Etzebeth dominated physically. Even in some of the scuffles, the Boks were on the front foot. It reminded me of that old Sir Ian McGeechan speech from 1997 about ‘when a Springbok was wounded it would fight for its life’. On the weekend it looked like the Boks fighting for their lives whereas the Lions had the knowledge that they had a game already in the bag.
Ben O’Keeffe hits just the right notes under pressure
I must say the referee’s management of the game was absolutely superb. The way he communicated to make sure the watching audience knew what was happening was on point and he didn’t fan the flames of what was said about the disrespect shown to Kolisi but still got the same end result. I’m not sure Rassie will be making a video about the decisions that went his way this week. I alikened that monologue to Donald Trump. Some of the points he made in his video were plain wrong and that’s what Trump used to do; use social media to push out your message, even if you know it’s not true.
That said, I want to be crystal clear that I don’t blame the refereeing decisions for losing the Second Test. That’s the easy thing to do and what South Africa resorted to last week.
I’m pretty sure that for all the noise Rassie was making externally, internally was saying, don’t blame the referee, it’s not a factor. Instead he’d have been asking, why did we lose the game? The Lions have to do that this week.
Springboks getting the rub of the green
Will World Rugby be happy that 15 players ended on the field? Of course they will because no one wants the biggest game’s to be decided by a red card but a few of those decisions would have been different in the Gallagher Premiership.
If you look at the letter of the law there should have been a few more yellow cards and potentially two red cards against Cheslin Kolbe.
Firstly, Kolbe’s blitz tackle on Curry was a cast-iron red card. Is there head contact? Yes, because Kolbe’s nose is bloodied. Is there foul play? Yes, because it’s head on head, he’s not bending his hips and he doesn’t really wrap his arms. The only thing that would mitigate it and not make it not a red card was the low-danger because Curry was uninjured – but Kolbe was. How do they judge low-danger? Speed, and there’s no doubt he came hurtling in. It’s a dangerous challenge using World Rugby’s own framework.
For the Conor Murray incident of him being taken out in the air, in the Premiership it is a red card because it’s adjudged foul play. He was never in a realistic position to take the ball. The fact that he didn’t know where Murray is isn’t a defence because it’s deemed reckless. He has a responsibility to know where other players on the pitch are. Then you look at how Murray lands. The referee said he landed on his back but that’s not strictly true. Referees in the Premiership ask, ‘take the hand away, what does he land on?’ If you take their arm away and Murray lands on his head. Clear red card.
With Faf de Klerk, again on Murray, we’d have to establish, is there head contact? If there is, is there foul-play? Yes, because he doesn’t wrap his arms, and is there is a high-danger? Yes, because he flies in.
Saying this, I don’t necessarily think, even with those red cards, that the Lions would have won the game. It’s funny because the big talking point in the build-up was the decisions that went the Lions way but that’s evened up now. It all comes down to Saturday.
Big selection calls to make
Everyone will be talking about the key changes to make ahead of tomorrow’s team announcement. It’s tricky because they don’t want to risk tearing up combinations that have been forged together for the past two weeks on the training ground but to leave the squad untouched is not an option.
I’d start wtih the back three. Had Liam Williams been on the bench, I suspect they’d have brought him on early, but he was in the stands and he simply has to come back in. You could argue a case for Josh Adams as well. Duhan van der Merwe deserved to get his shot, but he hasn’t delivered. You could say it’s not his fault, that he hasn’t had the opportunity, but he’s in there to do a specific role. If that’s not happening it’s time to try someone else.
Another interesting area is 10. Does Gatland say, it didn’t work going like for like, so do we play someone like Finn Russell fitness permitting or Marcus Smith? Either of those guys could feasible come onto the bench to chase the game. The midfield hasn’t quite sparked into life, either. Would you be better off with Henshaw out in the outside- centre berth and Farrell inside him at 12? How they’ve missed someone like George North or Manu Tuilagi in midfield to give them go-forward.
I’d also have a think about No 8. Jack Conan plays a tighter game but hasn’t had much impact so do you have a look at Taulupe Faletau or bring a Sam Simmonds in? The most controversial thing I could say about selection is up front. Rory Sutherland did really well at the beginning of the tour but his confidence has taken a kicking in these Tests. When he came on, he dropped a ball at the front of the lineout and gave away the stupidest penalty by going in at the side and got dominated at the scrum. The worry of him coming off the bench again is massive. The Lions have really missed Wyn Jones, so even if he’s not 100 per cent do you stick him on the bench; or if he’s not fit play a wildcard and bring someone in from outside? Bearing in mind the Lions have had zero impact with their ball-carriers what a difference Ellis Genge could have made. Imagine pulling him in, sticking him on the bench and telling him to empty the tank with his ball-carrying. It would be dynamite. The Lions have really lacked in that area.
I wouldn’t change the second-row but you’d have to consider an out-and-out lock on the bench. If they picked Henderson, Beirne might miss out because they might want an attacking backrow player like Watson. If they pick Beard, they’d have to have cover in the backrow but there are so many options. All I do know is I expect Gats to make the big calls because it’s now or never.
The squad I’d pick for the final Test:
15 Liam Williams
14 Josh Adams
13 Robbie Henshaw
12 Owen Farrell
11 Anthony Watson
10 Dan Biggar
9 Ali Price
1 Mako Vunipola
2 Luke Cowan Dickie
3 Tahgh Furlong
4 Maro Itoje
5 Alun Wyn Jones
6 Courtney Lawes
7 Tom Curry
8 Talupe Faletau
16 Ken Owens
17 Wyn Jones (Ellis Genge)
18 Kyle Sinckler
19 Ian Henderson
20 Hamish Watson
21 Conor Murray
22 Finn Russell (Marcus Smith)
23 Elliot Daly
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