Gatland faces cruel second Test Lions selection dilemma
Trailing 12-3 at the interval and memories of their loss to South Africa A still fresh in the mind, you could be forgiven for thinking the British and Irish Lions were just 40 minutes away from digging the deepest of holes as they headed into the second Test of the tour.
The first half was a performance at odds with the personnel that head coach Warren Gatland had picked. Not only were the Lions struggling to implement the game plan against the physicality and line speed of the Springboks, they also weren’t playing to the strengths of certain key players in the side.
Fast forward to the second half, however, and the Lions were an entirely different beast.
Their kick and chase chemistry was on the money, as was their work in the air competing for contested balls. Where carriers were running into green brick walls in the first half, in the second they were getting their noses into the gaps and consistently bringing front-foot ball with good presentation. The set-piece was bolstered after some early cracks were exposed and the impact of the bench far out-stripped that of their South African counterparts.
Gatland’s side squeezed a Springbok team that was visibly flagging and beginning to get into discipline trouble, to ultimately emerge as 22-17 victors in Cape Town, something which will have brought plenty of relief after the loss to a South Africa A side who were significantly undercooked and still had the beating of the Lions 10 days before.
The players will be monitored over the next 24 hours or so but a HIA to Dan Biggar aside, it didn’t look as though the Lions picked up any significant injuries in the win and, barring any Covid outbreaks or injuries picked up in training this week, Gatland should have close to a full selection of players to pick from for the second Test.
With that in mind, does he stick with the group after their second half heroics, or does he twist and tinker with the side that struggled to make the early impact on the game that they would have liked?
The back three worked well as a group, with Stuart Hogg contributing to that successful Lions kicking game, whilst both Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe flashed their ability as counter-attackers whenever South Africa’s kicking game offered them a bit of space and respite from the chase. All three would probably have liked to have been involved a little more in the attacking phase play than they were, but they all performed their roles well and it would be surprising if Gatland opted to break them up.
In the centres, there is a little more contention, with Elliot Daly having been given a tough day at the office by Springbok standout Lukhanyo Am. In fairness to Daly, a couple of ill-judged passes to the outside centre saw him hammered back as soon as he took the ball, but there were a few moments he would want back, including a couple of penalties that were conceded unnecessarily. That said, he still offers the left-footed kicking option, the distance off the tee, the speed in the chase and the positional versatility which made him such a valuable player for the Lions going into this first Test.
Robbie Henshaw went well at inside centre, particularly in that second half as he began to stamp his authority on the game as a ball-carrier. He had success targeting the space between Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende, and looks good to retain his spot in the next Test, whether that be at 12 or at 13 in a re-jigged midfield.
At half-back, Ali Price more than warranted his selection and, as with others, particularly cemented his place in the second half. His box-kicking was on the mark and drew the Springbok back field into a number of contested catch situations where the Lions had begun to show their proficiency. The bigger question will be whether or not Biggar is fit for the next Test or if he’ll be in the concussion protocol. He grew into the game and when the Lions did string together some phases, his passing was astute and accurate, after a couple of mis-judged early passes which put the centres under pressure.
In the front row, Tadgh Furlong was typically understated and effective. He may have had his pick and go through the ruck picked up by the Springbok defence, but his scrummaging was strong and he played a big role in splintering the South African counter-maul for Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try. Kyle Sinckler was effective from the bench but there is no reason to diverge from Furlong as starter currently. You would be hard-pressed not to say the same about Cowan-Dickie and Ken Owens, too, with the starting hooker doing well to rebound from a couple of nerve-inducing throws in the first half.
At loosehead there is potentially a little more debate. Rory Sutherland didn’t have a bad game on Saturday, but he did come under some pressure at the scrum from Trevor Nyakane and if Wyn Jones returns to fitness this week, it would not be surprising to see Gatland return to his initial selection at the position for the second Test. One sub-plot to this decision is Mako Vunipola and the extremely effective role he played from the bench, something which may not catapult him into a starter’s role, but it would be harsh if he doesn’t at least retain his spot in the 23 this week.
There isn’t too much that needs saying about the engine room after what was an excellent 80-minute performance from Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones. Itoje accounted for four of the Lions’ eight turnovers and was one of the driving forces behind keeping the Lions in the game in their disappointing first half, whilst Jones’ ability to complete a physical 80 minutes like that so soon after a significant injury continues to defy belief.
Two other standout performers were Courtney Lawes and Jack Conan, and if any player were going to steal the accolade of man of the match away from Itoje, it would have been one of those two. Lawes’ defensive and set-piece contributions in the first half were excellent, before he started bringing his physical carrying to the fore in the second, whilst Conan carried strongly throughout and was always on hand to clean up messy or static ball and keep the Lions moving forward.
With three penalties to his name, there were definitely moments in the game that Tom Curry would have liked back. He wasn’t able to have the same consistent, positive impact on the game that his back row colleagues were but his case to remain in the seven jersey will be boosted by the fact that Hamish Watson was unable to take control of the game when he was sprung from the bench. In fact, Watson was very lucky not to see a card after his tip tackle on Willie le Roux.
As for the bench, the dynamic worked well for the Lions, with the forwards bringing set-piece stability and Conor Murray and Owen Farrell adding control. The duo of Taulupe Faletau and Sam Simmonds may offer some more go forward from the bench if they were opted for, but the Lions are fairly versatile in terms of what they can do moving players around at six and eight, so Watson’s specialism at seven is valuable.
The biggest concern for the Lions, though, will be that the Springboks should only pose more of a challenge in the second Test. Rassie Erasmus’ side have barely played any rugby over the last 18 months and with the Covid-enforced isolations in camp over the last month, their preparation has been anything but ideal. They will be sharper in the second Test and they should be conditioned to play at their desired intensity for longer, with even the most ardent of Lions fan having to concede that there was a noticeable drop-off in South Africa’s efforts in that second half.
REF WATCH: 'For me there were simply too many aspects of the officiating which were inconsistent with standard operating practice.'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 25, 2021
Common sense would suggest that Gatland sticks and continues to build the chemistry in this group, though he is charged with that knowledge that the Springboks will almost certainly be improved in the second Test and if the Kiwi can spot some cracks in his side’s armour, he can proactively address that before it is exposed by a riled-up South African team.
These are the big decisions that Gatland has historically been very successful at making and all eyes will be on the team announcement this week to see whether or not he tinkers and tries to fine-tune that 23 and avoid the sluggish first half we saw in the first half in Cape Town on Saturday.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now