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FEATURE The Lions are up and running

The Lions are up and running
2 years ago

The joy of summer rugby, watching the British & Irish Lions overcoming their first South African opponents with ease, was offset today by troubling news about a positive test within the Springbok camp and squad isolation. This only 48 hours before the Lions take on the Sharks. It was a dampener because rugby fans had witnessed a weekend of next-generation talent plying their trade in Test arenas with adoring fans willing them on. It was the latest tantalising window into a post-pandemic future and if the Lions can make it through to early August, the rugby world can attempt to look ahead with optimism. Without further ado, here are The XV‘s talking points…

The spectre of Covid hangs over the Lions

When the Springboks press conference was postponed at short notice, the rumour mill went into overdrive, but there was no cigar for guessing that the cancellation was Covid-related in a country at the sharp end of the pandemic. Sure enough, in what seemed like an age – 25 minutes is an eternity in social media – SARU (South African Rugby Union) released a statement saying Lood de Jager, their towering lock, had tested positive for Covid-19, so the entire squad has had to go into isolation.

Now it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out this is not ideal. If the tour gets to the Tests, Springbok fans can pull out a fairly credible caveat that their players were undercooked, due to lack of preparation time. One hopes De Jager will recover in time because their two first-choice locks are in severe doubt. RG Snyman has had to have a skin graft after the barbecue incident at an end-of-season Munster get-together and Eben Etzebeth is facing a fight against time due to a troublesome rib injury. This episode, and the abrupt nature of it, will leave everyone associated with the Lions on tenterhooks, running out of rope with Plans B, C and D.

As this writer has previously written, if the sides can complete a full itinerary, it will be a sizeable achievement. The 2021 Lions series is testing everyone’s patience.

England’s next-gen turn on the power

Yesterday’s run out at Twickenham between England and the USA had a wealth of feelgood stories. First up, credit goes to an entire nation. Yes, Gary Gold’s Eagles were far, far better than many of rugby’s cognoscenti expected and according to esteemed statistician Russ Petty, with 29 points, they registered their highest score at Twickenham since 2001, when they scored 19. With the stop-start preparation they endured, it was a stirring performance against an albeit inexperienced England side. Eddie Jones will have been niggled by the porous defence that shipped four tries but any frustration will have been tempered by some England performances.

Freddie Steward served notice of his intent to challenge for a 2023 squad place with some rangy attacking lines from the backfield. The 6ft 5in Leicester Tiger looked unruffled as he took balls in the air, set off on counter-attacks and generally kept the visitors rocking on their heels.

Joe Cokanasiga
Joe Cokanasiga slices through the USA defence (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

At the other end of the size range, it was genuinely uplifting to see Harry Randall scampering round with such alacrity. His speed of thought and movement gave England tempo and his individual try showcased the match-winning ability he has shown for the Bristol Bears time and time again.

It was also pleasing to see Joe Cokanasiga playing rugby with a smile on his face. The young Bath wing has had a tortuous time after a serious knee injury and has gone on record as being unhappy with his form while he sought to find his confidence. His power on the wing marks him out as an outlier for England. He regularly joins mauls and adds his 17st bulk to latch on to ball-carriers as England hammer the opposition’s line.

Finally, his try-scoring record stands up to scrutiny. Eight tries in 10 appearances mark him out as England’s version of George North and Duhan van der Merwe. At 23, you would imagine Jones will call upon his services again.

Ireland get glimpse of the future

It wasn’t so much a teamsheet Andy Farrell handed into the referee on Saturday, more a plan to take him to the next World Cup. There was no Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Keith Earls or Conor Murray, a quartet of players who have 390 caps between them and a link in the international chain dating back to 2008.

Given their age – Sexton turns 36 next week; Earls and Healy are 33, Murray 32 – a succession plan has been needed for some time. Finally, it’s happening, the former three told to take the summer off while Murray, along with six other Irishmen, is in South Africa with the Lions.

Joey Carbery
Joey Carbery gave Ireland a look at a post-Johnny Sexton world (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

How heartening was it to see Joey Carbery back in a green shirt again, nearly two years after he last wore one. It only seems like yesterday that he was stepping off the bench in Chicago for his international debut to steer Ireland home against the All Blacks. The kid isn’t a kid anymore, though. At 25, he should be at his peak; instead his career has been cursed with injury.

Should he stay healthy, however, then Ireland – at long last – have a credible replacement for Sexton. It won’t escape anyone’s knowledge that the preferred alternatives to Healy (Dave Kilcoyne) and Murray (Jamison Gibson-Park) are respectively aged 32 and 29. That goes with the territory when you have a small player pool to choose from and will inevitably lead to more calls for the richly talented prop Andrew Porter to revert to his original position as a loosehead, having made such a seamless transition to tighthead five years ago.

Harris on the hunt

A couple of years ago, nobody was touting Chris Harris for a Lions berth. In fact, plenty in Scotland were grumbling at his command of the number 13 jersey. He lacked the searing verve and glamour of Huw Jones and Rory Hutchinson. He endured a bruising introduction to Test rugby, his second cap in Cardiff a mortifying 34-7 pummelling,

Gregor Townsend has backed him, though. The coach cherishes his defensive brilliance, his leadership without the ball. He has been one of Scotland’s finest and most consistent performers over the past two seasons. He has shone for Gloucester and worked hard to add gears to his game in possession.

Harris’ Lions debut was assured and influential. He looked like he belonged in this storied side. From outside centre, his defensive work was outstanding; he shut down space, made canny reads and did not miss any of his eleven attempted tackles.

Harris melded this excellence with an effective breakdown performance and some thrusting lines off Finn Russell. The coup de grace? His sumptuous chip to put Louis Rees-Zammit in for the game’s first try. A two-fingered salute to any who still think him little more than a defensive buttress.

Of course, Harris benefitted from familiarity all around him – Ali Price and Russell on his inside, Rees-Zammit lurking on the flank – and a meek opposition, but this was a terrific debut.

British and Irish Lions centre Chris Harris is tackled by two opponents
Chris Harris delivered an excellent all-round display on his British & Irish Lions debut (Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

Brave Blossoms sparkle in Dublin

They lost and yet they won. Anyone foolish enough to believe Japan’s march through the pool stages to the 2019 World Cup quarter-final was fortunate, boosted by the comfort of home conditions, well think again. They’re a genuine force, easy on the eye, not so easy to defend against. Yes, they were beaten by Ireland on Saturday and yes they were outscored five tries to four. Yet the margin was slim – eight points – and would have been closer had a Timothy Lafaele score not been chalked off after a lengthy review by the TMO.

You couldn’t take your eyes off their backs, fly-half Yu Tamura creating two tries with the subtlest of kicks; centre Lafaele scoring one and desperately unlucky not to have got a second. We haven’t even mentioned their wings yet, debutant Semisi Masirewa or Siosaia Fifita, the latter linking with Tamura for Lafaele’s wonderfully improvised try, the former catching everything bar Covid on his trip to Dublin.

That Ireland mentioned revenge for Shizuoka – the city where they lost to Japan in the World Cup – was telling, not just because it is a wound that hasn’t yet healed but also because this is a team now who are fully accepted as a proper Test opponent and not one to patronise by playing the kids. A real sign of respect was the fact Craig Casey kept his tracksuit on until the 79th minute, Ireland coach Andy Farrell reluctant to introduce him earlier as Ireland had used up all their back replacements by the early stages of the second half.

Given how they tested the Lions a week earlier in a way the woeful Sigma Lions failed to on Saturday, you have to genuinely ask why they are being kept out of sight in between World Cups.

International rugby has three credible competitions, the World Cup, Six Nations and Rugby Championship. Japan has access to just one of those. Imagine how good they’d be if they had annual access to the best in the world rather than this ludicrous situation where they got just 13 games against Tier One opposition between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, none of which were competitive fixtures.

Even allowing for the maddening selfishness of rugby’s unions around the world, it stands to reason that the game needs as many competitive nations as possible. Forcing the Japanese and Fijians to hibernate for four-year stretches won’t make them better. Nor will it make rugby better. You’d hope some administrator somewhere has the brains to figure this out.

Hearts go out to Halfpenny but fledgling Wales stars shine

The build-up was rightfully about Leigh Halfpenny, Wales’ talisman on so many occasions. He deserved every bit of praise coming his way but sport is cruel and no respecter of sentiment. Within a minute, the 100-Test cap full-back was writhing in agony on the floor after his left knee gave way under the Principality Stadium turf. It left fans, players and coaches striking a sombre tone but Wales knew they had to put personal disappointment behind them and perform and it was a bevy of debutants who stood out when play resumed.

Tom Rogers is raw, after all he’s barely into double figures for professional games played, but he has an X-factor exemplified by a scorching 60m dash down the touchline and a textbook tackle and jackal. There was room for improvement – he nearly gave away a try in the left-hand corner and overran a few plays – but most commentators would agree that he has a touch of the ‘Liam Williams’ about him; an edge, a desire to get involved and make life uncomfortable for defences.

Will Rowland
Wales scored eight tries as the overran a limited Canada side (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

More understated, but no less effective was the calming presence of Ben Carter. The 20-year-old lock has just completed his first professional season in red after excelling for the Dragons, and his set-piece work, calling the lineouts and work-rate in open play point to an increasingly prominent role as France 2023 approaches. With Jake Ball having returned to Australia and Cory Hill heading to Japan, there is room for another elite lock among the Welsh ranks and Carter looks to have filled it.

In the second half, Taine Basham showed why he is so highly rated with two tries in five minutes off the replacements bench. Built like Michael Hooper, he is squat, explosive and into everything. He also has a precious knack for scoring tries, which should see him join the throng of opensides waiting to replace Justin Tipuric. Finally, it took some confidence to take the Wales No 10 shirt for Ben Thomas, when your familiar position is one out at inside-centre but the 21-year-old Cardiff Rugby product looked assured as he ran the line for the last half-hour.

Wales were far from perfect, something captain Jonathan Davies has since admitted, but they are foundations for the double-header against Argentina and far beyond.

Great Scot, the Lions look a lot different

Think of the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa and inevitably you will think of Jim Telfer’s gravelly voice, or at the very least, Ian McGeechan’s softer but no less powerful oratories. At some stage, your mind may even drift to the wonderful performances of Tom Smith, Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait. If Rob Wainwright’s contribution to that Test series win has slipped your mind, well that’s understandable. It was 24 years ago, after all.

Still, at least Wainwright started a Test on that tour. Only one Scot, Tom Smith, has done so since. Worse again, Scottish players have tasted only 67 minutes of Test rugby with the Lions since the 2001 tour. Is it any wonder if a connection was lost between Scottish fans and the Lions?

You sense that is about to change now. No Scottish fan was going to fall in love with the Lions just because Gordon Bulloch got 10 minutes off the bench against New Zealand in 2005 or because of Chris Cusiter’s replacement appearance against Argentina in Cardiff that year. It’s unlikely Ross Ford’s 45 minutes in the ‘09 South African series or Richie Gray’s 12 minutes against the Wallabies in 2013 did much for the sales of replica jerseys in the Borders, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Having failed to get one player into the match-day 23 for any of the Test games in New Zealand four years ago, the Scots now look like featuring heavily in the Test team this time. Saturday reinforced that belief, Chris Harris shining at outside-centre, Ali Price putting his hand up for a place on the bench behind captain Conor Murray; Stuart Hogg auditioning impressively for the No15 shirt.

Why stop there? While much can change over a tour – ask Alun Wyn Jones – the reality is that if you were picking the Lions Test team right now, then four Scottish players, Hogg, Harris, Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe would be in it and both Price and Finn Russell would be mightily miffed if their efforts haven’t merited a slot in the 23.

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