Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well. They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle. Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.
The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest.
There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery. It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).
With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour. They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles. However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill). Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions. If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark. The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force. If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to. The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch. The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.
Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.
If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.