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Ben Kay: Time for Gatland to roll the dice

By Ben Kay

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The Stormers game was a definite drop in intensity from the South Africa A game and that won’t have been easy for the players, but they always looked like they had a bit extra in the tank.

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For the Springboks watching on, it showed the style of game they impose will be very important because the Lions can open things up so easily. In the South Africa A game, the hosts showed they could dominate the Lions with their physicality and intensity, but it remains to be seen whether they do that for 80 minutes over three Tests. If it gets loose, the Lions look more deadly, so the onus is on the Boks to keep it tight and find those moments of brilliance for their gamebreakers.

There will be a level of relief in the squad that they’ve made it to Test week. I heard Sir Ian McGeechan saying the week leading up to the final warm-up game being the hardest because of the uncertainty. Even for the shoe-ins, there will be that unease of not knowing quite how the Test squad is going to pan out. As a player, at least when the Test team is named, you know where you’re at in the pecking order. Privately, you may not necessarily accept the decision, but your ultimate aim is being part of a winning Lions Test Series, so I expect those not selected to fall into line and not go off-script.

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RugbyPass OFFLOAD | Episode 38 | Ryan Wilson, Simon Zebo & Max Lahiff on the Lions, Oz nights out, punch-ups and prank calling Finn Russell

During the World Cup with England, the most important week was just before the final because we were all thinking, ‘I really don’t want to get injured’ but it was the non-playing squad members who really brought the intensity in training and made sure we didn’t coast through the week.

If there’s any fallout from this tour, I believe it will happen afterwards. People talk about a World Cup hangover, but with this tour being in a bio-secure bubble, they can’t really get out and about and let off steam. They’ll be having a laugh together but there’s no getting away from the squad to add some normality. Remember, for a lot of these boys, it’s their third block of being in a bubble not seeing their families, so how they’re managed afterwards will be key. I know the Premiership has a 10-week post Lions break-clause so it will be interesting to see how and when they’re re-integrated.

Looking ahead to the first Test, the Lions will feel better prepared because the Springboks are short on game time. One of South Africa’s major strengths is their inner-belief and ability to control their own destiny but if they lose that first Test, an element of self-doubt may start playing on their minds.

Everyone will now be picking their team but it’s not necessarily the 15 players who we think are playing the best that will be read out by Warren Gatland’s dog-eared piece of paper, a lot of unheralded work goes on and isn’t highlighted, so the management team will be taking all that into account. Personally, I’m not sure how many players who played against the Stormers will be in the Test team but there were a few combinations who looked like they were going through their final audition.

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Front-row familiarity
The one area they maybe a little concerned about is the scrum. It is such a big part of the South Africa’s game, and even if they’re not playing well, they can profit up front and turn the game. While everyone expects Tadhg Furlong to get picked, Rory Sutherland got caught and struggled a little. He never looked entirely comfortable. Even when he was holding there was a lot of movement there, so maybe the opposition number was messing him about a bit. Saying that, it’s not often decent scrummagers have two duff games in a row, so they’ll get straight onto the training paddock to sort out the technical issues. Coaches generally like to keep props together to learn how each other works.

Luke Cowan-Dickie challenges Gatland to drop him
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s all-court game was outstanding. Firstly, his ability to carry low and keep his nose at turf level means he’s not going to get knocked back. Yes, the Boks can lift you up and drive you back, but they prefer wrestling chest-on-chest. They will struggle to get a shot in on Cowan-Dickie because of his body angle. His handling is also an asset because he’s comfortable stepping in at first receiver and playing what’s in front of him. His darts were quite good but there’s no doubt the Springboks will look to get an advantage there and if they do, he could be targeted. Jamie George is the most accurate thrower we have, so he maybe he’ll be on the bench if the darts miss their target. Ken Owens would have been pencilled in pre-tour but he could now miss out. However, if Cowan-Dickie is left out of the 23 after that performance, it will put enormous pressure on George and Owens to deliver. Another asset with Cowan-Dickie is the pick and go. They’ll want the first ball-carrier to get from 5m to 1m out, because the Springboks will have to get narrow to defend their line and the Lions will have the opportunity to get wide, something they didn’t do against South Africa A. We also know Warren Gatland likes Taulupe Faletau in the wide-channels, so Cowan-Dickie is an asset in the middle to dent holes. Wyn Jones is solid enough but Furlong not your traditional grizzly tighthead, he likes to play, so you may want to balance him off with a complete nugget like Cowan-Dickie.

Jones Lions
Alun Wyn Jones (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Is Alun Wyn Jones a risk worth taking?
The party line is that Alun Wyn Jones is fit and raring to go, but privately, he wouldn’t be human if in the darkest recesses of his mind he’s not thinking, ‘what happens if my shoulder doesn’t hold up?’ With every day his confidence will improve but he’ll be thinking about it every time he carries into contact and the Springboks will be testing him out, believe me. He’ll want to get a bank of carries behind him and contact from all different angles. There may be some scar tissue or inflammation, so if he does catch it, he’ll be thinking ‘is that pain going to subside?’ I think he will be in the squad but he doesn’t necessarily have to start in the first Test. Just having his leadership around the squad will be vital. Gats wouldn’t have flown him out if he wasn’t hoping to play him, but he isn’t into fairy tales and if there is a concern over his fitness, he will make the big calls.

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Was Henshaw and Daly a dry run for the Tests?
At 326 minutes, Daly has had more minutes than anyone else in the squad. That was mitigated slightly by the fact he came on for Liam Williams early on against South Africa A. In essence, he’s been given every chance to prove his worth. At the start of the tour, Warren probably thought he could get him up to speed in the position he feels he’s best suited to, which is 13. I don’t think Daly has had a good 18 months by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s had a decent tour. Inside him, Henshaw gives him a little bit more variety than going the full Bundee Aki. Granted, Henshaw is feeling his way back but he can cart it up, get it over the gainline but he doesn’t have to do that every time. Henshaw and Daly on paper could work well, which is extremely tough on Chris Harris who has been on both sides of the ball. He will have come under serious consideration in the selection meeting and may still make it.

Will Watson, Hogg and Van der Merwe bolster the Scottish contingent?
Watson played well against the Stormers, making yardage at will and tackling ferociously but I’d be amazed if Curry wasn’t the Test 7. I watched that A game and said to a mate, if I was a Director of Rugby and someone said, ‘here’s a pot of money, go and splash it on one player’, I’d spend it on Curry’. That’s how highly I rate him. The Lions with Cowan-Dickie, Itoje and Curry as a spine are not going to get outmuscled. In the back three, after scoring eight tries and witnessing your first child being born, you’d think Josh Adams is guaranteed, yet there’s still a small chance he won’t be picked because Duhan van der Merwe has just eaten up the turf, made more metres than anyone else and beaten more defenders. It’s a flip of a coin decision. As for full-back, I thought Stuart Hogg looked a little under pressure against the Stormers. After that break down the right, he threw a pass into touch and you could see it eating away at him. Saying that, Gats may think, it’s all about our counter- attacking game, so Hogg gets picked but you don’t see South Africa deviating from their game plan and Hogg is not as ideal if he’s getting hammered man and ball. He prefers a side that plays field-position so he can run the ball back with a lot of grass ahead of him to plot a path. That is why Williams and Watson’s ability to take the ball in the air put them as front-runners for a Test start.

Hamish Watson
Hamish Watson (PA)

Does Gatland stick or twist for the first Test?
In a three Test Series, you can take a risk and roll the dice. You don’t get knocked out, like a World Cup semi-final, you get another go. This means he could give some of the lesser-known players who have been playing well a run. The Lions is a quirky concept in that some players because are used to being first-picks in their national squad. I mean, does Furlong ever have to worry about his name not being read out, does Ken Owens have to worry about not getting the No 2 shirt with Wales? Gats has got to get that balance right of experience and youth. Let’s be honest, while Owen Farrell has played better than the Six Nations, if he’s in the team, it’s because of his leadership. Gatland will know there are several ways to skin a cat and know he has the option to bring the cavalry in for the second Test, which makes selection even more critical than the first Test.

Ben Kay’s First Test XV
15. Liam Williams
14. Anthony Watson
13. Elliot Daly
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Josh Adams
10. Dan Biggar
9. Conor Murray
8. Taulupe Faletau
7. Tom Curry
6. Courtney Lawes
5. Iain Henderson
4. Maro Itoje
3. Tadhg Furlong
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
1. Wyn Jones

Bench: Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Alun Wyn Jones, Hamish Watson, Ali Price, Owen Farrell,
Duhan van der Merwe

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Ben Kay: Time for Gatland to roll the dice

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