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'The be all and end all': Why the Lions series rests on the first Test

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Expert
22nd July, 2021
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Lions teams have to win the first Test to win the series.

Is there an exception? 1989. The British and Irish Lions rose from the dead in Australia. That is it: the proverbial proof of the rule with one anomaly.

Add to that the rarity of the Springboks losing two Tests at home in succession and you have this truth: Warren Gatland will have told his players this first Test – COVID-ravaged, empty-stadiumed, forever in doubt, and much awaited – is the be all and end all.

Win now. In fact, I imagine Gatland has told them they must win the first 20 minutes of the first half, then the first half, and no debates or excuses.

The first 30 minutes of the Lions’ loss to the almost Boks on this tour will be all the exhibit he needs for his admonitions, but also, he can point to Durban in 2009, when the Lions were taken aback by the Boks’ ferocity.

The crowd will not be there, but there is an eerie violence to quiet stadia in a collision or combat sport. The UFC fighters who fought for a time in front of only the judges and coaches were locked in an intimate and desperate embrace.

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The din of a full grandstand can provide solace at times. To be beaten, pancaked, folded, battered, or owned in utter silence, save for the referee’s breathing and a halfback yapping, is true humiliation.

And so, the gladiators to run on to the cavernous pitch have been named.

Surprises abound.

Elliot Daly

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The Lions will start Elliot Daly at outside centre. Nicholas Bishop and I had a friendly debate on this one when the squad was first announced. We were both right.

I said there was no way Chris Harris was ready, and therefore Daly was the man, despite not being a true 13. Nick rightly said there was no evidence Daly was ready or even picked as a 13.

How could Daly contain a Lukhanyo Am-Cheslin Kolbe break, or read a Willie le Roux ghost run, in that channel when he seldom plays there and doesn’t have the scramble to recover from any mistake?

But here we are. This Daly gambit, combined with the choices to go Scot and start the big blonde battleship Duhan van der Merwe with the hair-plug-on-fire Stuart Hogg, instead of street smart Welshmen Josh Adams and Liam Williams, means the only safe pair of hands and brains at the back belong to Anthony Watson.

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The rest of the Lions’ back line follows form, with rugged inside centre Robbie Henshaw and hyper-competitive Dan Biggar the best ten-12 combination they had.

And a vital one it is, with smooth Handre Pollard and dynamic Damian de Allende a well-oiled machine of bash, boot, and bamboozle.

Dan Biggar lines up a pass

(Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Livewire scrumhalf Ali Price is preferred over erstwhile tour captain Conor Murray, who does seem deceptively slow, having lost a yard of pace from the yard he already lost.

Price is presumably seen as the best antidote to the thoroughly annoying Faf de Klerk, but number nine was the Lions’ worst position a year ago, and nothing has changed. Price is a charge-down machine. He panics. And he tries too hard at times. The Lions coaches overthought themselves here.

But the biggest call by the old Welsh coach was to axe one of the best Welsh number eights in the modern era in favour of relatively untested Irishman Jack Conan.

A Lions loose trio of big Courtney Lawes, scurrying Tom Curry and barbaric Conan is athletic, has lineout ups, and good hands. I am not sure how it will function together at the breakdown.

All of the Lions hookers look in form. If Luke Cowan-Dickie tries to submarine Bongi Mbonambi, he will be in for a rude shock. The only hooker who got lower than Bongi was Keven Mealamu, who seemed to play like happy spider.

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And what of the Boks?

Perhaps to show he is his own man, Jacques Nienaber appears to have overruled his water boy Rassie Erasmus and selected a bomb squad front row that is actually substantially better than the starting trio, not just the same or almost as good.

This could backfire. If Trevor Nyakane falls flat, as he is wont to do, territory will be easily lost. If raw Ox Nche cannot deal with the human keg that is Tadhg Furlong, the Lions may win the first half.

It is a long way down from Duane Vermeulen to wee Kwagga Smith. Smith has no deficit in heart, but he simply cannot stop Lawes on the try line, one on one.

Kwagga Smith

(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

My suspicion is Smith is selected to sweep and swoop when the Lions backs cut back inside, as Hogg and van der Merwe both seem to do almost every time. He may be the second de Klerk, disrupting enemy lines. But it is a mistake, and is a gift to the Lions.

Still, any pack with a rejuvenated Pieter-Steph du Toit, fired-up Eben Etzebeth, belligerent Mbonambi, and work-your-socks-off Franco Mostert is not going to be easily bullied. When the bench comes on, you will have almost an entirely Western Cape forward crew for the Boks, playing on their home ground, and ready to rumble.

I’ve seen just enough of Kyle Sinckler and Rory Sutherland to know they may truly struggle against a Steven Kitshoff-Malcolm Marx-Frans Malherbe power shove.

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For the rest, Elton Jantjies, Rynhardt Elstadt, and Damian Willemse all have errors and brain fades written all over them. So it may come down to stalwarts Pollard, de Klerk, Am, Kolbe, and the abundant tight six (with Lood de Jager an astonishingly good substitute to have) to see the Boks safely home.

This is a golden opportunity for the Lions. They should win. But both teams have a few flakes, and it might come down to who makes the biggest howler at the most inopportune time.

Boks by two or three, after the Lions win the first half but collapse in the scrum in the second half, both sides to be carded.

The teams

South Africa
W. Le Roux, C. Kolbe, L. Am, D. De Allende, M. Mapimpi, H. Pollard, F. De Klerk, O. Nché, B. Mbonambi, T. Nyakane, E. Etzebeth, F. Mostert, S. Kolisi (c), PS. du Toit, K. Smith. Replacements: M. Marx, S. Kitshoff, F. Malherbe, L. De Jager, R. Elstadt, H. Jantjies, E. Jantjies, D. Willemse.

Lions
S. Hogg, A Watson, E. Daly, R. Henshaw, D. van der Merwe, D. Biggar, A. Price, W. Jones, L. Cowan-Dickie, T. Furlong, M. Itoje, AW. Jones, C. Lawes, T. Curry, J. Conan. Replacements: K. Owens, R. Sutherland, K. Sinckler, T. Beirne, H. Watson, C. Murray, O. Farrell, L. Williams.

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