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Lions and Springboks' clash in Cape Town has the makings of a classic

Warren Gatland’s tourists will need to get out in front in the first half.

Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw and Owen Farrell at the Lions' captain's run.
Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw and Owen Farrell at the Lions' captain's run.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated Jul 24th 2021, 10:00 AM

AT ONE STAGE, this Lions tour looked doomed. 

There have been Covid outbreaks, cancelled games, a scramble for new opposition, a controversial yellow card, ‘dented’ egos, a director of rugby taking to Twitter to stoke the flames, shock selection calls, a high-profile water boy, surprise injury call-ups, a tour captain who was ruled out and then made a miraculous return, another skipper emerging from isolation at a late stage, a South African TMO, and plenty more besides.

The build-up to this first Test between the Springboks and the Lions has been relentlessly packed with action but the stuff on the pitch today in Cape Town [KO 5pm Irish time, Sky Sports] promises to be a hell of a lot more entertaining.

The world champions, whose preparation has been far from ideal, host the best of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend attempt to outsmart Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus. Alun Wyn Jones looks to inspire the tourists as Siya Kolisi aims to inspire the nation of South Africa once again.

This promises to be an epic, even if it is greatly diminished by the absence of supporters in Cape Town Stadium. The travelling hordes of Lions fans are what have made previous tours so special but both sets of players are used to empty stadiums by now.

History tells us that winning the first in these three-games battles leads to series success so there will be desperation on both sides to take that huge step towards glory.

Gatland has made some big selection calls in his team, which suggests that the Lions are going to bring real ambition in attack. Ali Price, Duhan van der Merwe, Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie are dynamic, energetic presences and probably weren’t players the Boks would have expected to face in this opening Test.

alun-wyn-jones Tour captain Alun Wyn Jones is fit to start for the Lions. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Getting a lead against the Boks will be pivotal for the Lions. The South Africans are masterful at suffocating teams out of games once they have a little breathing distance out in front on the scoreboard. In that sense, it’s interesting that Gatland is starting players who another coach might have deemed to be ‘impact’ options off the bench, while he has a number of controlling influences among his replacements in the likes of Conor Murray and Owen Farrell.

As for the Boks, there is no expectation that they will shift greatly from the strategic approach that won them the World Cup, even if their team and bench features a number of key changes.

They’ve lost the scrummaging might of Tendai Mtawariwa and the back row bench impact of Francois Louw to retirement, while talismanic number eight and defensive leader Duan Vermeulen is among the injured, as is ‘Bomb Squad’ member RG Snyman.

Erasmus and Nienaber have opted for a starting front row of the inexperienced Ox Nché, world-class hooker Bongi Mbonambi, and the underrated Trevor Nyakane. All three are short, squat scrummagers and will look for an edge against a taller Lions front row.

The Boks then have Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe – arguably a stronger front row – to use off the bench. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them on early and maybe even in the first half. 

A second row of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert brings guile, physicality, and lineout quality, while Kolisi and World Rugby player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit are ready to stifle the Lions from the back row. With Vermeulen missing, Kwagga Smith gets a chance at number eight. He’s a different player, with excellent breakdown skills and impressive acceleration off the base of the scrum. He will look to grab opportunities created by the more imposing forwards around him in attack and defence.

The Boks are back to a 5/3 bench split and the Lions will likely feel they have more quality to call on in their replacements, even if that sub front row and Lood de Jager are top-class.

Brilliant wing Makazole Mapimpi’s return after Covid-enforced isolation means the Boks have also been able to restore their first-choice backline from the World Cup. 

Scrum-half Faf de Klerk is the key piece of the jigsaw, kicking intelligently, tackling aggressively, and constantly buzzing around in attack, while Handré Pollard brings control from out-half. Their combination is tried-and-trusted at the highest level, whereas Lions halfbacks Price and Dan Biggar have played just 20 minutes together.

faf-de-klerk Faf de Klerk is the Springboks' on-field general. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The kicking battle will be a pivotal feature of this game along with the scrum, maul and lineout. The back threes will need to be assured in the air to deny kick transition chances for the opposition, with the likes of Stuart Hogg and Cheslin Kolbe so lethal in that area.

Referee Nic Berry generally doesn’t penalise much around the lineout and maul so it will likely be part of the game where both sides look to really push the boundaries. Meanwhile, that scrum battle will be riveting.

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The Boks are so good at winning momentum moments with their kicking game and set-piece, chipping away and building a sense of overwhelming their opposition. The Lions will need mental strength today as much as tactical and technical qualities.

It will be fascinating to see attack coach Townsend’s plan to get over and around the sublime Springboks defence, but it does feel like the Lions will need tries to pull this one off.

They will have belief that their fitness is better than the Boks’ given the hosts’ Covid difficulties and lack of game time during the build-up, while Gatland can call on an exciting bench including Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson, both of whom can excel against wearying defences. That said, no one is foolish enough to write off the South Africans when it comes to athleticism and work-rate. 

The sneaking sense is that the Springboks might just have too much in what promises to be a tight encounter but if the Lions can get themselves over the line today, series success beckons.

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith.

Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager, Rynhardt Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies, Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse.

LIONS: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Ali Price; Wyn Jones, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tadhg Furlong; Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Kyle Sinckler, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams.

Referee: Nic Berry [Rugby Australia].

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