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The talking is finally done and the Lions have a shot at the series

The kicking and set-piece contests will be crucial again this evening.

Dan Biggar at Cape Town Stadium yesterday.
Dan Biggar at Cape Town Stadium yesterday.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THERE HASN’T EVER been a build-up quite like this. We have had plenty of controversy during Lions tours before but this was unique.

Twitter and Vimeo certainly haven’t featured like this in previous Lions series. Referees have been questioned and criticised but not in as in-depth and explosive a fashion as happened here. 

It has been a bizarre week in which Rassie Erasmus crossed the line in many people’s eyes, while others felt the Springboks director of rugby simply shielded his team from criticism in the wake of their first Test defeat.

Whatever one’s opinion, there is surely collective relief in the fact that the talking is now finally done and we can watch rugby again later today as the Lions look to seal a series win over the Springboks in the second Test [KO 5pm Irish/UK time, Sky Sports].

It remains to been seen if Erasmus and the Springboks’ outspokenness around last weekend’s referee, Nic Berry – who is an assistant ref today – has any effect on the man in the middle this evening, Kiwi match official Ben O’Keeffe.

He will be hoping there are no big red-card or game-defining decisions that cause another week of moaning in the media – traditional or social – after two teams packed with world-class players collide.

A big backlash from the Boks is a guarantee as they fight to keep the series alive into the third Test. Lions assistant coach Robin McBryde has spent some of this week reading a book called ‘Ja-nee: The Story Beyond the Game’ by former Springbok Dugald Macdonald, who gives the reader an insight into how the South Africans looked to atone for losing the first Test of the Lions series in 1974.

If omens are McBryde’s thing, it bodes well that the Boks also lost the next two Tests and drew the fourth that year. Of course, the Lions’ most recent Test series success in South Africa came in 1997 when Martin Johnson and co. got the job done in the second Test thanks to Jeremy Guscott’s late drop-goal.

maro-itoje-receives-their-jersey-from-jason-leonard Maro Itoje receives his Test jersey from Jason Leonard. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It may well be just as tight today if the Lions can get over the line and add to Warren Gatland’s sensational CV as a head coach. Amidst all the bickering from Erasmus, success this evening would be another notch on Gatland’s impressive record.

He has made three changes to his starting XV with the aim of dealing with what he knows will be a South African onslaught in the first half. The Lions gave up a 12-3 lead to the Boks last week, having let South Africa A pull 17-3 ahead in that warm-up game, so Gatland is keen for his men to at least have parity heading into the break this time.

Ireland’s Conor Murray comes into the number nine shirt for his kicking quality and composure under pressure, while Scotland’s Chris Harris is selected at outside centre for his directness and defensive robustness. England’s Mako Vunipola gets the nod at loosehead after winning a scrum penalty having come off the bench last weekend.

The scrum battle will be key here again, particularly given that the Boks have two new starting props in Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe. They also have a new hard-carrying number eight in Jasper Wiese, who is powerful but has nowhere near the experience of the badly-missed Duane Vermeulen.

The Boks reverting to a 6/2 split of forwards and backs on the bench indicates that they aim to make things brutal up front, where the maul was such a key weapon for the Lions last weekend. That won’t have sat well at all with the South Africans in recent days.

The kicking and set-piece contests will, of course, be pivotal here but we can all hope for some exciting attacking rugby to be sprinkled in amongst the ferocity. Boks wing pair Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi were underutilised last time out and simply must feature more often, while the South Africans can surely conjure more with their plays off scrums and lineouts.

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south-africa-captains-run-cape-town-stadium Jasper Wiese gets a big chance at number eight. Source: PA

The Lions, meanwhile, must be ultra-clinical with any rare linebreaks of the Boks defence and also must hope that one or two counter-attacking opportunities transpire for fullback Stuart Hogg.

It is difficult, though, to get away from the sense that the collisions will be astronomical and that the kicking and set-piece will be everything in this game.

However it pans out stylistically, the Lions have a shot at sealing the series here and denying the Boks a chance to bring it into a decisive third Test. 

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese.

Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane, Vincent Koch, Lood de Jager, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith, Herschel Jantjies, Damian Willemse.

LIONS: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Chris Harris, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, 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, Taulupe Faletau, Ali Price, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly.

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe [New Zealand].

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