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Lions lack proven combinations but Gatland has picked an exciting side

There is plenty of unknown about the tourists’ starting XV.

Ali Price and Dan Biggar have only played together for 20 minutes.
Ali Price and Dan Biggar have only played together for 20 minutes.

Updated Jul 22nd 2021, 12:05 PM

COACHES OFTEN LIKE to tell us that cohesion and combinations are crucial in any team.

Warren Gatland has mentioned combinations a few times on this tour but his starting XV for Saturday’s first Test against the Springboks shows scant regard for them.

To be fair, injuries and Covid have denied Gatland a chance to get minutes into some of his combinations but it is jarring that halfbacks Ali Price and Dan Biggar have played just 20 minutes of rugby together against Japan ahead of arguably the biggest game of their careers.

Centres Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly got 57 minutes alongside each other last weekend against the Stormers as the Ireland centre returned from a hamstring injury. It’s also notable that Daly last started a Test match at outside centre back in 2016.

Though the pack contains players familiar with each other from national team duty, there is a similar lack of unit combinations.

Tadhg Furlong and Luke Cowan-Dickie got 48 minutes together last weekend against the Stormers but that’s it for the front row. Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones haven’t played together on this tour but they did start two Tests alongside each other in the second row back in 2017.

England team-mates Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry know each other well but they have yet to start in a back row with number eight Jack Conan.

Of course, the Springboks have a fair degree of cohesion and familiar combinations like halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard and centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am. 

francois-de-klerk-and-handre-pollard Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard know each other's games very well. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

14 of their starting XV were members of their World Cup-winning squad in 2019, with another five on the bench. The contrast, therefore, is strong.

All of that said, rugby games aren’t just decided on tried-and-tested combinations. Gatland has selected an exciting team that looks set to ask testing questions of the famously strong Springboks defence.

Ali Price has been picked ahead of Conor Murray for his superior creativity and running game as the Lions look for a way through close to the ruck, while the powerful Duhan van der Merwe has been selected for his ability to win the gainline on first phase, beat defenders, and finish tries.

Jack Conan has defended superbly on this tour too but he brings footwork, dynamism, comfort in the 15-metre channels, and classy handling skills to the party in a pack that has plenty of exciting rugby in it.

There are primary jackal threats in Luke Cowan-Dickie, Wyn Jones, and Tom Curry, with others keen to chip in and create turnover opportunities. Meanwhile, Stuart Hogg is one of the leading counter-attackers in the game, as well as possessing a superb kicking game. Anthony Watson out on the right wing can be lethal too.

Daly at outside centre is a fascinating pick. He has a refined left-footed kicking game and is very comfortable acting as a second playmaker in the backline. The bigger question mark will be how he handles defensive traffic.

All of this is exciting but, of course, the really decisive areas will be classic – scrum, lineout, maul, restarts, kicking, and collisions. Rugby never changes too much.

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Tadhg Furlong will fancy a cut off the inexperienced Boks loosehead Ox Nché, while Trevor Nyakane struggled against Wyn Jones in the South Africa A game against the Lions. The return of the strong-scrummaging Bongi Mbonambi is a boost for the Boks.

ox-nche-is-tackled Ox Nché gets a huge change for the Boks. Source: Howard Cleland/INPHO

Gatland said yesterday that he felt the Lions had “dented the Boks’ ego a little bit” in that South Africa A game thanks to scrum penalties and some solid maul defence, but the Springboks will simply love hearing that kind of verbal challenge ahead of the Test.

Having Lawes at blindside obviously helps with the Lions’ lineout, while they will need to nail their restarts in order to prevent the Boks from getting any easy access into their half.

The kicking game promises to be very prominent. The Boks generally kick more than 30 times in play per game as they look to boss territory and pressure their opponents into mistakes, allowing the likes of Cheslin Kolbe to prosper on kick transition.

Hogg and Watson will need to be assured in the air, while van der Merwe is likely to face real scrutiny in this area. As for the Lions, they have excellent kicking options in Biggar, Daly, and Hogg in particular. Price has kicked well on his tour aside from a couple of overly long efforts last weekend against the Stormers.

All in all, Gatland will feel he has picked a team with the tools required to beat the Boks but the proof will be in the pudding.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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