Conor Murray has regained the Lions' number nine jersey for the all-important second Test this Saturday and although Ali Price did little wrong on his Lions Test debut as starting scrum-half last Saturday, this feels like the better-balanced combination of nines.
Murray was strong coming off the bench to close the deal alongside Owen Farrell in the 22-17 first Test victory but with Warren Gatland expecting an almighty response from an angry and hurt Springbok team, this may well be the right way around.
The Munster half-back will be a more robust defender and his excellent game management and greater experience will be needed to weather the expected storm coming the Lions way while Price can cause problems off the bench and if need be roll the dice if the tourists are chasing the game at the death.
Elliot Daly still has a big part to play in this Test series despite being moved from starter to the bench. He did not enjoy the greatest of evenings starting at outside centre in the first Test and Scotland’s Chris Harris has been given a chance to show his early tour form can translate to the Test arena this Saturday in a midfield partnership with one of the star players of last week’s first-Test win Robbie Henshaw.
The Lions are proud of their defensive record on this tour and Harris will bolster the rearguard efforts after Daly had some less than certain moments last weekend.
Yet the Englishman is an ideal choice as a replacement, able to cover full-back, wing, and centre. And don’t forget that big left boot which could prove crucial if the Lions win a penalty late on around the halfway line.
In naming Dan Biggar subject to the fly-half completing his return to play protocols following a head knock in last week’s Tests, Warren Gatland has given himself plenty of wiggle room in midfield if the Welshman fails to come through the final stages of the process in the coming days.
Biggar would be a loss but the Lions have the tried and tested Farrell ready and waiting to take over at 10 and if last week’s starter does make it to kick-off his fellow playmaker remains an option as a replacement at inside centre with Henshaw able to move out from 12 to 13 if necessary with the aforementioned Daly also offering plenty of options from the bench.
Gatland has referenced dented South African egos following strong second-half performances from his forwards against South Africa A and in the first Test, particularly at scrum time, the set-piece on which the Springboks have long prided themselves.
Mako Vunipola contributed to their angst last Saturday coming off the bench after loosehead prop starter Rory Sutherland endured a baptism of fire in the early stages before finding his feet. Sutherland is now on the bench and Vuniupola has regained the number one jersey he had worn four times before in Lions Tests, once in 2013 and in all three 2017 games against the All Blacks.
It is some turnaround for a prop who spent the season playing for Saracens in the English Championship and who arrived on tour with Gatland questioning his fitness levels, a point which the England front-rower agreed with.
As well as Courtney Lawes played in last week’s first Test victory it would have been great to see Tadhg Beirne get more than seven minutes off the bench.
The Munster and Ireland back-five forward has so much to offer this Lions team and has had a great tour of South Africa. He deserved to keep his place on the replacements bench though Hamish Watson has lost his spot to Lions veteran Taulupe Faletau, perhaps in the knowledge that Lions got off lightly with Watson’s tip-tackle on Willie Le Roux in the second half last week.
Watson was lucky to stay on the field and was likely only saved from a yellow card or worse by Le Roux breaking his fall with an arm on the ground and the Lions were fortunate that a tiring Handré Pollard missed the resulting penalty when they had worked so hard to finally take the lead at 19-17 a couple of minutes earlier.