Win physical battle first then Lions can use smarts to move Boks around

Win physical battle first then Lions can use smarts to move Boks around

Can the Lions produce a fluent performance given so few of the combinations put together by head coach Warren Gatland

Not long now. The answers to so many of the imponderables regarding today’s first Test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions are within reach.

Will the Springboks’ only Test match since winning the World Cup, a run against Georgia earlier this month, be enough to get them up to speed for a full-throttle encounter?

How much will the players who contracted Covid be affected by the after-effects of a virus that has only recently cleared their systems?

Can the Lions produce a fluent performance given so few of the combinations put together by head coach Warren Gatland have had any meaningful game-time together?

And will Gatland live to regret omitting firepower of the likes of Josh Adams, Jamie George, and Iain Henderson out of his matchday squad and keeping Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, and Liam Williams on the bench?

Only those with a crystal ball in their possession will have the foresight to predict those outcomes, let alone the state of play in this three-Test series before the final whistle blows this evening. Yet we have a few certainties — that South Africa will kick, kick and kick again and back it up with stomach-churning physicality in contact.

The Lions know it is coming, Gatland saw it first-hand when his squad faced South Africa A in the same Cape Town Stadium 10 days ago and was delighted to see them finish stronger after being surprised by the early onslaught the Test-strength home side brought in the opening half. It was not enough to win the game — they lost 17-14 — but the head coach has placed great store in all he witnessed that night.

Tuesday’s double training day was overseen with particular relish as the players who learned they had missed out on selection only an hour before tore into the Test starters in the afternoon session. Yet we are still not entirely sure what gameplan Gatland will equip his Lions with.

It looks like a side picked to move the Springboks around, unsettling the world champions by changing the point of attack with fleet of foot and rugby intelligence yet the Lions first have to at least gain parity in the set-piece and at the breakdown and that means negating their opponents’ physicality.

Gatland recognises you cannot have one without the other.

“It’s twofold. You can’t go into a match against South Africa without knowing you have to match their physicality because you can’t allow that dominance,” Gatland said. “Test match rugby is all about the physical battle. That doesn’t change.

“But it is also about being smart and when those attacking opportunities come we have got to be able to capitalise. Even after the A game, particularly the second half and how strongly we finished, we were in a great position from a conditioning point of view.

“The guys have worked incredibly hard in Jersey and since we’ve been here, done the altitude stuff, and got the benefit from that too as we have come down to sea level. So we are not going to fall away.

We think as the game goes on we are going to get stronger and stronger. Those are things which mean we take a lot of positives going into the game.

“We are going to be in an arm wrestle but we’ve got the confidence we can work through that. You’re not going to get everything your way in a Test match, you’re going to be under pressure, have to defend but there are times when you will have some ascendancy and we think we can capitalise on that.”

The Lions will not be mistaken that beef and the boot is the Springboks’ answer to every problem, how could it be with half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard pulling the strings for the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Willie Le Roux, and Makazole Mapimpi to work their magic?

Full-back Stuart Hogg is well aware of the threats even if his kicking statistic is a little off.

“That’s what makes it all the more exciting,” Hogg said.

“I think the back three are going to have a huge say in what happens in this Test series on the basis that South Africa kick the ball on average 35 times in the game and the majority of them are contestable.

“So we are going to have to be on the money in terms of defusing their kicking game and then really taking the strength of theirs away from them.

“I look at the talent in the squad and the back three appear to be — minus myself — scoring tries for fun.

“So yeah, there’s going to be opportunities for us. We have seen in the games that we’ve been involved in that we can come to life and the last 10 minutes of each half we’re going to back our fitness.

“Hopefully there will be opportunities for us and a little bit of space because I speak on behalf of the rest of the back three we’re not interested in running up the guts and getting smashed by these big Saffers, we want to try and move them around and look after our bodies, I guess.”

It’s enough to make you think the Lions may just squeak this one, isn’t it?

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