The Lions have stacked the backline with height for an aerial showdown
There really isn’t much between the Springboks and the Lions based on the first test, tactically or otherwise.
They both had similar plans, there wasn’t any noticeable dominance by anyone at scrum time, with the Springboks conceding two penalties to the Lions’ one. The Lions won 80 per cent of their 16 lineouts, the Springboks only had four throws of their own.
With parity at set-piece, the Springboks’ loss came down to execution, with a failure to manage the aerial assault in the second half allowing the Lions to gain ascension and territorial control.
Had they not lost so many high balls, it is unlikely the Lions even get back in the game and the questionable offside call on Willie le Roux isn’t a talking point, or Hamish Watson’s tip tackle.
Cheslin Kolbe, normally a reliable pair of hands, wasn’t able to diffuse many of the Lions high balls in the second half under pressure from the likes of the taller Van der Merwe, Robbie Henshaw and Watson.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, as the smaller Kolbe routinely made incredible leaps to make up for the height disadvantage. The Lions themselves didn’t bring down the ball, but they did interfere with the catch, with hands in the way leading to a 50-50 spill.
Sometimes it was a knock-on, sometimes the Lions got it back. Either way the Springboks weren’t able to secure the ball and when the bounce went against them, it lead to huge momentum swings to enable the Lions to get back into the game after being down 12-3.
The Springboks have made changes as a result of their aerial malfunction, going with Jasper Wiese at 8 instead of Smith and they have gone back to a 6-2 split on the bench, just relying on Damian Willemse for coverage across the outside backs with Elton Jantjies missing out.
The Lions have gone for more height in the backs for the second test, leaving Josh Adams out for the second time in favour of the 6’3 Van der Merwe while replacing Elliot Daly with the 6’2 Chris Harris.
The smallest height wise, Stuart Hogg, is well established as an aerial specialist and possesses an incredibly valuable long punt from the back.
It must have been a 50-50 call to keep Daly on the bench over Liam Williams, with Daly’s long-range goal kicking perhaps giving him the edge. Although he missed his only chance in the first test, if the Lions need a late penalty goal from distance he could be on the field.
Gatland admitted they are expecting a bombardment when he spoke at his mid-week press conference of what would be a ‘ferocious kicking battle’ in the second test. This is how both teams want to play and so this is how the series will be decided. It will be who breaks first and concedes more.
Although, the Lions themselves will need a better showing in the air on defence as they struggled to diffuse many of the Springboks kicks.
It was a failure to take a Willie le Roux bomb in the first place that created the opportunity for his no try. The De Allende no try brought back from a Kolbe knock-on came from a spilled Faf de Klerk box kick.
These opportunities were coming from the Lions’ own inability to secure possession in the air, and only luck prevented them from paying the price that the Boks did.
The Springboks generated slightly more contestable kicks than the visitors, 18 to 17, but the Lions got the better results when it came to regaining possession and then turning those swings into points.
A key man from the first test, Ali Price, will also make way for Conor Murray in the run-on side, a change made in order to get control of the first half an hour that was missing for the Lions in the first test.
“They try and build the scoreboard, they try and get the front and hold on. That first twenty to thirty minutes is pretty important to us,” Gatland said of the decision to elevate Murray.
Price was instrumental in the second half with his box kicking, but also brings energy and tempo that might be better utilised when the game opens up. However, Murray’s box kicking will need to be on target with little room for error to match what Price was able to do.
The second test will bring more intensity and an emotional charge from a Springbok side fighting to stay alive in the series, but again, it will be decided in the air as both sides know this is the way to open each other up.
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