The three Lions bolters leading charge for a Test spot
The British and Irish Lions completed the warm-up stage of their tour of South Africa on Saturday, as they recorded a 49-3 win over the Stormers in Cape Town, giving them a confidence-boosting springboard into their first Test with the Springboks.
The result came hot on the heels of their disappointing showing against South Africa A midweek and there were plenty of takeaways to come from their breaking down of a well-drilled and defensively strong Stormers side, that unfortunately just could not live with the intensity of the Lions beyond 40 minutes.
A number of players put their hands up, including some of those who would be more or less consensus picks in Warren Gatland’s Test XV to take on the Boks.
Tadhg Furlong put in another shift that reminded everyone watching of what a special player he is. His physicality shone through on both sides of the ball and his awareness to spot the space through the middle of the ruck and lay the foundations for one of the Lions’ first half tries illustrated that he is far more than just a set-piece and collisions contributor.
Between the lines his runs and movement prior to contact, Furlong is one of Gatland’s most consistent tight five options at delivering gain-line success. As well as Kyle Sinckler has gone, and Zander Fagerson had a strong cameo from the bench against the Stormers, it would seem like Furlong is set to retain the jersey he owned four years ago in New Zealand.
Another player to stand out who has looked like he has played his way into the Test team was Elliot Daly. In Lukhanyo Am, South Africa have arguably the best defensive 13 in world rugby currently and if the Lions are to challenge him, and consequently the players inside and outside of him, they will need variety.
In Daly, the Lions have someone who can beat his man on the outside, is equally effective stepping back inside off either foot, can pass well off both hands and has a kicking game to boot. If the Lions can deliver quick ball off the front foot, there is a compelling case to be made that Daly, whose defence has also been strong in South Africa, is the centre with the most potent set of skills to unlock the South African defence.
Alun Wyn Jones also looked comfortable in his return from injury, whilst Stuart Hogg put together a solid final case in his competition with Liam Williams, but it was three players maybe further away from that predicted Test XV who really stole the show in Cape Town on Saturday.
Due to the play of Josh Adams, Anthony Watson and even Louis Rees-Zammit, Duhan van der Merwe, despite his try-scoring heroics so far on tour, has not been talked about as a Test starter as frequently as some of his rivals. With the speed and agility of the South African back three, and their proclivity to kick and turn opposition back fields, it does make sense for the Lions to go horses for courses to counter that.
That said, van der Merwe’s ability to break contact in small spaces is noteworthy. With the Lions having struggled in the collision with South Africa A, the moments when van der Merwe came off his wing and went looking for work in the midfield will have reminded Gatland that the adopted Scot could well be a way to bring some more go forward into the midfield, without sacrificing the playmaking and defensive skills of the options that he currently has there.
On that theme of physicality and securing front foot ball, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie could not have done much more than he did on Saturday to show he should at least be in the 23 come the Tests. Like Furlong, he takes nice angles to contact and he never initiates contact too early with a long stride, his feet are always underneath him and he is able to keep that fight going through the contact and, in many of his carries, beyond it.
He was 100% at the lineout on Saturday, too, checking off that box which rivals Jamie George and Ken Owens tick so comprehensively, and his chop tackles were also effective in denying the Stormers momentum on multiple occasions. The Springboks will challenge his ability in the loose on both sides of the ball far more than the Stormers did, but if he does not make the 23, it would be very surprising indeed. For George and Owens, their chemistry with Maro Itoje and Jones respectively are factors in their favour.
Finally, Scotland’s Ali Price picked an opportune moment to have his best game of the tour, with the tempo he was able to inject dovetailing perfectly with the playing style of debutant fly-half Marcus Smith. From his awareness of space around the ruck to the measured delivery of his passing, Price was the spark that saw the Lions ultimately run the Stormers ragged and keep the scoreboard ticking over at a healthy pace.
There has been some criticism for Conor Murray so far this tour, albeit much of that stems from people not understanding Gatland’s game plan and/or the foundation, or lack thereof, created for him by the forward pack at times, but Price has made his case. It is hard not to see Gatland opting for Murray given how he will presumably ask the Lions to play against South Africa and Price can be the game-changing influence for the final 30, though some will undoubtedly raise the point of why not put that sort of skill set on the pitch for the first 50 and see where you get to?
And just to conclude, a small mention for Sam Simmonds, with the Exeter Chiefs back row having flashed his ability as a carrier, support runner and breakdown operator in his two most recent cameos from the bench. If Gatland were to opt for a 6-2 split on his bench, Simmonds as a wild card for one of those forward spots is something which could cause a small level of concern in the Springbok camp, especially given the staccato nature of their build-up and any potential worries that they may tire in those final 20 minutes.
Injuries and Covid could still yet derail plans and Gatland will insist that starting and bench spots are still up for grabs in training this week, but that 23 will be pretty close to concrete now in his head.
Nevertheless, debate will rage online – and even in camp – this week as to who should make the cut but let us not forget that anyone that does not make a predicted XV is not being called a bad player. These are all elite rugby players who have been selected as British and Irish Lions for very good reasons and the margins between positional rivals can be paper-thin at times.
There are so many variables at play, from form and fitness to experience and chemistry within a team, so if everyone takes a breath and tries empathising with why a player has been picked, it should be a more enjoyable week for everyone involved.
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