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RUGBYPASS+ The Lions selection game

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The Lions selection game

Ahead of the final Test, the competition between the Lions and the Springboks has been as tight as ever. It will be no holds barred on Saturday and we’re not just talking about Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland. The squads have 80 minutes left to pull out a morale-boosting victory for their respective nations. For the Lions, Gatland’s team selection points to a change of tack, with six changes in the starting line-up and a raft of ‘bomb squad’ changes on the bench. The Springboks, meanwhile, have demonstrated their tactical nous for lifting the ball skywards to unsettle the Lions and winning it on the deck. They also have the physical power to overwhelm a side. With the tour about to reach its thrilling denouement, it’s difficult to say if the Lions are any closer to understanding their best XV to take the Series.

Certain individuals like Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong and Alun Wyn Jones have been constants in selection, while Courtney Lawes seem to offer the ballast from the backrow Gatland is drawn to. In the backline,  Dan Biggar and Robbie Henshaw appear to be the glue that underpins the side, while Duhan van der Merwe is the only back three player to play in consecutive Tests.

Lions
The race for selection has seen many quality players left out (RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

Fortune favoured the Lions in the first Test with the tempo of Ali Price selected at 9 but Gatland preferred the steady delivery of Murray for the second Test. Louis Rees-Zammit has both shown promise with a hat-trick of tries but at 20, it’s clear the management see him as a potent threat for future tours. At the base of the scrum, Jack Conan has been preferred to long-term favourite Taulupe Faletau in the battle for the No 8 shirt in another close call. At 10, Biggar has been in pole for both Tests while Farrell was in charge for the narrow defeat to South Africa A’s. Gatland has opted once again for the Welshman, with magician Finn Russell on the bench. An inspection of the Tour stats tell of a fierce contest between Biggar and Farrell and decisions like these can linger around long after the Tests have finish. So has Gatland chosen the right men? The XV ponders the tale of the tape for some of the Test starters over their nearest competitors…

Fly-Half

It is the here and the now for the on-field general, who has to decide how the game is run and importantly keep the scoreboard ticking over. Assurance in front of the posts is always a key aspect of big games like a decisive Lion’s Test match. Biggar is statistically the best kicker in international rugby but this superiority is not the only indicator to him keeping his place to start against the Springboks for the third time. Farrell, while he hasn’t been at his best in recent months, has been lauded by his team-mates for his professionalism and has shown his worth by making 100% of his conversion attempts this series.

On top of his perfect conversion record, Farrell edges Dan Biggar in terms of the number of his in-play kicks that have been re-gathered by his teammates. Biggar’s contestable kick accuracy is slightly better than Farrell’s at present but the difference is minute. Biggar tends to gain more metres in matches that he plays but his presence on the pitch in the first two Tests has also given him an opportunity to combine well with the backs around him and he will hope to pass the ball more than three times, as he did in the second Test.

Verdict: For consistency and his kicking prowess, Biggar edged the final selection with Russell brought onto the bench for his x-factor and Farrell confines to watching in the stands.

Fly-half

Number 8

A highly contested spot ahead of the tour became a clear cut choice between Jack Conan and Taulupe Faletau for the No 8 jersey. Conan, after a game and a half in the Six Nations and a barnstorming Champions Cup quarter-final against Exeter Chiefs has risen from the ranks to prove himself as an elite back row player on this tour. A tidy defensive performer, he’s missed only one tackle so far this series and this complements the skillsets of his back row partners in Curry and Lawes. Conan has also struck up an impressive 113 metres carried this tour making himself one of the Lions’ most effective best ball carriers, yet it is still something of a surprise to see Faletau out of the 23 and Sam Simmonds, who has had no Test experience since 2018, pulled onto the bench.

Purely based on form, Gatland felt he had to stick with Conan who had started both of the previous Test matches against South Africa and he decided to select the ballast and speed of Simmonds, who will be required as the game breaks up late on.

Wing

The major shock was that Anthony Watson was dropped instead of Duhan van der Merwe for the final Test. The Scottish behemoth was heavily criticised for his yellow card and inconsistency under the high-ball. However Watson was far from perfect aerially and in the few days leading up to selection there were even calls for Louis Rees-Zammit to sneak into the line-up with his blistering pace. In the end, Van der Merwe’s power and ability to beat defenders one-on-one was preferred to make a dent in the Springbok defence. Van der Merwe gains an average of 31 metres per match and has broken the gain line more than anyone else in the squad

There is no doubt Rees-Zammit is jet-heeled with the ball in hand but justification for his selection was always a long-shot with Josh Adams in the frame. The 26-year-old has scored eight tries in four games. Although Rees-Zammit has shown grit in defence, he isn’t able to offer the same positional maturity or bite in defence as Adams yet. The stats suggest that he has the edge over Rees-Zammit here.

Wing stats

Scrum-Half

Another contest that could have gone either way at scrum-half. Although Ali Price started the victorious first Test for the Lions, Conor Murray’s experience saw him edge it for the second. The two can barely be prised apart in the stats. Both have had precision kicking games this series and the decision has come down to Gatland’s match tactics on the day.

Price tends to carry the ball slightly more than Murray but Murray’s tackle completion rate (89%) is slightly higher than Price’s (81%). Price has a possible edge in that he has put in more accurate contestable kicks throughout the tour but the margin of difference is negligible when it comes down to this final Test. Expect both scrum-halves to play their part on Saturday.

Fullback

Both choices at fullback offer a depth of experience for Gatland to back his line with. Hogg, as Scotland captain, and Williams are gifted players and strong characters on the pitch. Williams boasts an impeccable defensive record with a series tackle completion rate of 100% but hasn’t offered the same attacking threat as his Scottish counterpart. Although Hogg hasn’t put any points on the board thus far for the Lions, he has busted tackles and made metres in ways that rival any other player in the squad. It’s difficult to argue with his record in this series of seven defenders beaten but his aerial game was disappointing as he made four errors in the air.

That ability to tear through defences hasn’t been enough to see him selected for the third Test. Even though the stats suggest that Hogg poses the bigger threat offensively Williams’ surety under the high-ball sees him back in the shirt he finished the Series in New Zealand wearing.

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