Lions will be too much for undercooked Springboks - Andy Goode
Warren Gatland has sprung a host of surprises in his team selection but the Lions will be too much for an undercooked Springboks.
He has mixed and matched personnel with certain players to combat the physicality that we all know is coming together with others who can up the tempo and the plan is clearly to make a fast start.
South Africa have got several players who have just come out of isolation or have barely played at all in the build-up and they have only had one official Test as a team since the 2019 World Cup so there’s every chance they can catch them cold.
The selections of the likes of Ali Price, Elliot Daly and Duhan van der Merwe reflect that. Conor Murray looked like one of the only players nailed on to start when he was named as Alun Wyn Jones’ replacement as skipper but there’s no doubt Price brings far more pace.
His battle with Cheslin Kolbe will be key because the Toulouse man has the ability to expose anyone and van der Merwe has been guilty of missing some defensive reads but he’s explosive in attack and will trouble Kolbe in a way that the Lions’ other wingers can’t.
Daly hasn’t started a centre for England since his Test debut against South Africa back in 2016, with Eddie Jones picking him first on the wing and then at full back, but he was clearly selected as a number 13 on this tour and I’ve always said it’s his best position.
We know Gatland isn’t afraid to make the big calls, having dropped Brian O’Driscoll for the third Test in 2013, and this line-up is certainly a bold one and one that I don’t think any pundit in Britain got right in terms of their predictions.
In the forwards I think numbers one to five picked themselves really and then he’s married up the game-breaking ability of Jack Conan with the hard-hitting of Courtney Lawes alongside Tom Curry, who brings just about everything and was another automatic selection.
Aside from Lawes and maybe Stuart Hogg, this is also a team that has very definitely been picked on form with players who have excelled on tour being given the opportunity to start the first Test and you have to applaud that.
By all accounts it almost took the toss of a coin to decide between Hogg and Liam Williams and perhaps the Welshman’s recent concussion was the difference but the Scotland captain deserves his chance to finally feature in a Test on his third British & Irish Lions tour.
The game plan will be to play with a pace and intensity that the Boks just can’t handle because they haven’t played enough top level rugby in the build-up and the bench will be crucial to that.
Both sets of replacement forwards look incredibly strong, with South Africa having arguably their first choice front row in reserve, but the Lions clearly have an edge among the backs replacements.
Murray and Owen Farrell may not look like X-factor players to come on and change a game but they’ll see things from the sidelines and be able to come on and make a difference, whereas I think the Springboks will be in real trouble if Elton Jantjies has to come on and fill in for Handre Pollard too early.
As always, we don’t want to be talking about the refereeing in the aftermath but there’s obviously a huge responsibility on Nic Berry’s shoulders and Gatland has planted the seed when discussing his role.
South Africa’s defence relies massively on line speed and offside is always a question mark with that so flagging it in the build-up to the game is a smart move, as ever, from the Lions head coach.
Gatland is none too happy about the last-minute appointment of South African Marius Jonker as the TMO for all three Tests and I absolutely agree with him.
If he needed to step in for the first Test because of the pandemic-related travel disruption for Brendon Pickerill, that’s fine, but there’s no need for him to be appointed to all three Tests. There should be a better Plan B in place from World Rugby.
Jonker missed a fair bit when he was TMO for the Lions’ defeat to South Africa A and I’m sure his professionalism won’t be called into question in terms of favouring one side or the other but all eyes will be on him and he’ll need to have his best game as a TMO.
It isn’t just the background of the South Africa A game and the history of what happened in the Tests in South Africa in 2009, he needs to come in and help the referee with a lot of the borderline incidents and stuff happening off the ball rather than trying not to make a decision.
Hopefully neither Jonker nor Berry will be mentioned post-match and it’ll come down to the fine margins between the two teams. If you look through the Springbok side, you don’t see a lot of weaknesses but I think the key one is that they’re undercooked. Combine that with a drop-off in quality in the halfback replacements and I just see the Lions having the edge.
History tells us how important the first Test is on a Lions tour, maybe more so this year than most, and I may be looking through British & Irish Lions red-tinted spectacles but I’m excited by the team selection and I just think the Lions win this by 10 points.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now