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Ben Kay: The Lions had to go ahead

By Ben Kay
Warren Gatland /PA

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If the chaos of the run-up to the Sharks game hadn’t happened, I would have said there were a few areas of the game that might have been a slight concern, but then we always look back at previous tours with rose-tinted specs, don’t we?

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If we look back to the 2003 World Cup, the consensus is probably that England played amazingly all the way through but at times we’d actually been pretty average. People paper over that because we ended up winning it. Will England football fans remember the poor performance against Scotland if they beat Italy on Sunday? I doubt it.

My point is, if the Lions coasted through the tour with makeweight opposition, and stormed into the Tests, without missing a beat, it would remind me of the All Blacks failures at World Cups until 2011. If it’s too easy, you’ve got no preparation for finding solutions when the going gets tough.

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There was actually plenty from that Sharks game where the coaches could say, ‘we’re nowhere near the finished article’. With another run out against the Sharks this weekend, Gatland needs to work out his starting combinations and bench options sharpish.

Off-field chaos galvanises a squad
One of the factors Warren Gatland was most pleased about post-game was the squad’s resilience. They could have easily rolled out the caveats about the turmoil of training in certain combinations and that being thrown out of the door hours before kick-off, but they didn’t and I think that attitude might actually help them.

Gats and the support staff come into their own in fostering that resolve. Before flying the squad will have known things were not going to run smoothly. When I was with England, we worked with the Special Boat Service (SBS) and one of their mottos was, ‘the best battle plan in the world never survives the first contact with the enemy. It’s who adapts quickest that survives’. It resonates, doesn’t it? You’ll never go through a World Cup or a Lions campaign without something going pear-shaped.

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Maro Itoje /PA

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The Springboks have just as many hurdles, so this is not a case of one side being softened up more than the other. Both sides will be continually asked about permutations of the tour but their stock answer will be, ‘that’s outside our control’. I think the coaching staff will actually be playing on it. In 2003 for the Grand Slam game in Ireland, Clive Woodward said, ‘if you don’t win this, you won’t win the World Cup. He said, ‘the Irish are the loveliest people in the world but they will do everything to upset you during the week.’ It’s what led to Johnno having a stand-off on the red carpet because we had our armour plates on for any eventuality. The pressure was internal and the Lions will feed off the adversity.

Mako not quite hitting the heights
One of the big areas that got exposed last night was the scrum, which is going to be massive at the Test Series. Why? Because the South African’s think they have a huge advantage there. They have Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe who are very powerful scrummagers and Mako Vunipola and Zander Fagerson didn’t really click if you look at some of the penalties they gave away.

Lions Gatland Sharks

(Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Right now, I don’t think Mako is the same player he was four years ago. At scrum-time, he likes to get into a competitive, more attacking position with his feet further back which is higher risk but higher reward. You get some props who hunker down into a more immovable position with feet under their hips but they don’t attack the opposition as much, but for that to happen you can’t just attack as an individual. For Mako to be successful it relies on what’s happening at the other side of the scrum and it wasn’t happening against the Sharks. Saying that, Gatland has talked about players having credit in the bank and this is Mako’s third tour. He can fall back on his performances for England and Saracens, especially in European Cup finals. At the top of his game he offers things not many props can but he knows you’ve got to get your bread and butter right. Mako will need a really strong scrummaging performance next time out.

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Is Farrell a better bet at 10 than 12?
I thought Owen Farrell looked more comfortable in the 10 shirt yesterday – even though he didn’t have a number! It was interesting to hear pre-game that Ronan O’Gara that he thought he was a world-class 10 but not a world-class 12 and in-game see Brian O’Driscoll saying you have to get Farrell on the pitch somewhere. Then you have fans saying he should be nowhere near the Lions. The England captain certainly divides opinion like no other!

Lions Calveley Springboks

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

One thing we do know is he should not be considered as a crash-ball 12. Geech (Sir Ian McGeechan) said he was a Test Match Animal but where do you play him? I thought his kick-through for van der Merwe’s try was smart. He shaped to pass but at the last moment saw the last man had shut the gate too early leaving acres of space in behind, but he didn’t break stride, dropped it onto his foot and made it easy for Duhan.

I’ve always liked the fact he doesn’t get perturbed when he makes errors or things go wrong such as missing a couple of kicks. With some kickers, if they miss a few you start to worry when they step up to the tee, whereas with Owen, he just says ‘give me the ball’. He is now fifth in the all-time list of points scorers with 1050 points, so he doesn’t get affected by knock-backs which will be crucial in the Test Series.

In 2017, even though he went out to New Zealand competing with Johnny Sexton for a Lions shirt, the two of them really bonded. They put rivalries aside and worked well. He’ll be doing the same with Dan Biggar and Finn Russell. Against the Sigma Lions there was a moment when Finn put a little pump-pass to hold the defender and almost opened the gap up but Owen didn’t read it and overran it. That understanding will come with familiarity sitting in each other’s pockets in training.

Don’t underestimate his ability to play a part in the Tests.

Josh Adams is living his best life
For me, Josh Adams is nailed on. He has everything that Gats wants; he’s tough, abrasive, aggressive in defence and that one-handed pick up off the Louis Rees-Zammit offload for his first try was sublime and showed his confidence. I also loved how he set-up Rees-Zammit for the try down the right-hand side because he beat a couple of men, kept his balance and offloaded with perfect timing. The tries are just a nice bonus compared to the basics he does so well.

Lions

(Photo / INPHO /Dan Sheridan)

On the other flank, Duhan took his tries well but there were a few times defensively that I thought he got caught out positionally and for that reason I’m not sold that he’ll be a certain starter. We all love talking about the attacking abilities of our wings but we know how Faf de Klerk plays for Sale, so you know you’re going to get hammered with high-balls and you need a back-three who can cope with that.  That’s what Liam Williams and Anthony Watson can give you not just aerially but with their defensive management of the backfield. Watson has had his injury worries since but he’s a more rounded player than the last tour and shone for England during the Six Nations. Their lack of game time puts the pressure on but it will drive standards. Although Hogg has started well, the Watson, Williams and Adams back three is still possible for the first Test.

Tom Curry rises to the challenge
For a part of the match, I almost player-cammed Curry and his workrate took my breath away. There was one passage where he was the first defender opposite their 10, Curwin Bosch, on the left-hand touchline. He flew forward with line speed to put pressure on him, but the ball was passed at the last moment and he literally followed the ball like a heat-seeker the full width of the pitch at full pelt and thought about contesting but decided to hold off and attack the ball at the next phase to win a turnover. That was after 63 minutes! I couldn’t run that fast out of the tunnel before kick-off. Curry is just the sort of physical beast to take on the Springbok backrow. After Josh Navidi played brilliantly and Hamish Watson started off like a train, I don’t know how Gats is going to pick that back row.

Lions Covid

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The future of the 2021 Lions tour
When they were looking at options the South African Rugby Union clearly said, ‘we’ve got a contract in place, we can make it happen’ and with the move to Cape Town, I think everyone associated with the tour will try and get the tour over the line. I’ve seen some fans saying, what about the UK, which had 60,000 for the Euros at Wembley? But it’s not as straightforward as that. Our government has to give the green light, then you have to think about getting the logistics of getting people to Twickenham, traffic management, speaking to the local councils for permission, and this in a matter of days. The choice is simple, do it this year or wait until 2025 in Australia.

Finally, a lot of people are suggesting the Tour should have been cancelled a long time ago. That would have meant that the Lions wouldn’t have had a series against the Springboks for 24 years. Players of British & Irish Lions quality would have missed out on the ultimate honour. I don’t see how we are better off with the tour not happening at all, rather than giving it a go and at least trying to complete it. We know the traditional Lions ethos is built on amateur values but we need to be honest and accept the Lions, like any other sporting brand, is a business. Lots of traditionalists say, ‘oh, it’s all about the money’, but it’s not greed, no one is making a profit. As a game, we’re losing money hand over fist; it’s about trying to survive. Those people who are saying, ‘bin it off, move it to next year’, are the same people who are saying how badly the unions are treating player welfare but you can’t go from a Lions tour into a World Cup the next summer. Trust me, as someone who has been through a pre-World Cup training camp, there is no way you can go from an eight-week Lions tour, into an attritional domestic season and then straight into a pre-World Cup block. It would be ridiculous.

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Ben Kay: The Lions had to go ahead

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