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Lions explain half-dozen XV changes, why Russell gets bench spot

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Warren Gatland has explained why he has opted to follow his 2013 blueprint for Lions glory, making six changes to his third Test starting team and jazzing up the make-up of his bench for this Saturday’s series decider versus the Springboks in Cape Town. 


It was eight years ago versus Australia when Gatland last found the Lions in the situation that has unfolded in South Africa, the tourists winning the opening Test and then failing to clinch the series with a match to spare by losing the second Test. 

It was for Sydney that the New Zealander rung a half-dozen changes to his starting XV, including the controversial axing of veteran midfielder Brian O’Driscoll, but he was ultimately proven correct in his selection tinkering as the Lions blew Australia aside in that series finale.

Video Spacer

Graham Henry on how the Lions must play to win their series versus the Springboks
Video Spacer
Graham Henry on how the Lions must play to win their series versus the Springboks

Now Gatland is hoping the same number of changes for this latest third Test showdown will generate the same reaction and see the Lions clinch their fractious series versus the Springboks. Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Bundee Aki and Ali Price are all included in the backline at the expense of Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Chris Harris and Conor Murray, while in the pack Wyn Jones and Ken Owens take over from Mako Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

It means that in contrast to the second Test breakdown of six English players, four Irish, three Scottish and two Welsh, it is Wales, the 2021 Guinness Six Nations champions, who now provide the biggest Test team representation with six players compared to Ireland’s four, England’s three and Scotland’s two.

“There were certain things from the weekend, particularly the aerial battle – we got nothing out of that,” said Gatland when asked to explain the logic behind his decision to make sweeping changes. “Disappointed with the last 20 minutes in terms of giving away eight penalties and four of them we consider were pretty needless ones that we shouldn’t have given away. Not complaining about the result, in fairness to South Africa they finished strongly but it was a tight game, we were happy with the first half and 60 minutes on the clock there was nothing in the game. 


“We just felt Wyn Jones was very unlucky, he picked up that injury in the (week of) the first Test. He is back fit so it’s that combination with Ken in the front row, and then Ali did pretty well in the first Test so we swapped the nines around, and with Bundee and Robbie (Henshaw) they are a pretty familiar combination. 

“That midfield has always been a bit of a discussion, a bit of a debate for us and just looking at the physicality that Bundee brought in the A game (the 17-13 loss to South Africa A on July 14) and that combination of those two working together gave us the chance to move Robbie one (position) out.

“We definitely want to play some more rugby and we just didn’t get that opportunity in the second half. In the first half, we got some of the bounces that we did in the first Test in terms of that aerial stuff but we got nothing from the air in the second half. 

“South Africa kicked the ball 22 times in the second half, we have only kicked it ten times. We have tried to go out there and get some momentum and play some rugby and we just never got into the game in that last 20 minutes or so. That is why there is a couple of changes and Finn Russell comes into the bench because he is a little bit different. Our two 10 are quite similar in what they do and he offers us something a little bit different.


“You are just trying to get that balance right. We did the same thing eight years ago, we made six changes, and it is a credit to the players. There have been so many tight calls and you are there having a long discussion about selection and trying to get the right combination and thinking about players to start and impact coming off the bench. There have definitely been some really tough and tight calls in this tour.”

On the bench, Adam Beard, Russell and Sam Simmonds will all feature for the first time in the Test series under Gatland and will all win their first Lions cap should they take the field. Kyle Sinckler is also on the bench having had his citing for an alleged bite dismissed. Rory Sutherland, Tadhg Beirne, Taulupe Faletau and Owen Farrell, used as replacements in last Saturday’s defeat, drop out of the matchday 23.

The selection means that nine players – skipper Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Jack Conan, Tom Curry, Tadhg Furlong, Henshaw, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Duhan van der Merwe – will have started all three Test matches while another nine players won’t have played any part in the entire series – Gareth Davies, Zander Fagerson, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill, Ronan Kelleher, Josh Navidi, Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith.   


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