Conor Murray has been central to some epic days in Lions and Irish rugby history. It is less then three weeks since Warren Gatland installed the 32-year-old as the Lions’ tour captain in the (poi) absence of Alun Wyn Jones. But that was then. The contrast between a sluggish Murray and the buzzing, effervescent Faf de Klerk in the South Africa A game on Wednesday was stark, even allowing for the early dominance of the strong home pack.
Wales’s Gareth Davies has shown the occasional flash of defence-splitting speed but little in the way of general authority. Which leaves Scotland’s Ali Price, widely seen as the third Uber driver off the rank when the tour party left. He has looked sharp, his tactical kicking has improved and Gatland has been singing his praises. The best way of sapping the Springboks’ energy is to up the pace and Price loves playing at a high tempo. A decent showing against the Stormers in the final game before next Saturday’s first Test and the 28-year-old Glasgow Warrior, originally from Norfolk and qualified for Scotland via his mother, has a genuine chance of claiming the starting No 9 jersey.
The breakdown is going to be fundamental to the series outcome and South Africa can be guaranteed to go hard into contact. But the Lions will also need to counter the Boks’ lineout threat which is why the 6ft 6in tall Tadhg Beirne is being considered for the No 6 shirt.
In theory the Irish forward offers a triple threat as an extra jumper, a turnover poacher and an incisive ball-carrier, underlined by his brace of tries against the Sharks last weekend. A good all-round game against the Stormers, similarly to Price, may well be enough to earn him the no 6 jersey – unless Hamish Watson again performs so compellingly well that the management pair the Scotland flanker and Tom Curry in the same starting XV. England have used Curry and Sam Underhill together to great effect – as the All Blacks can testify – and a blend of Taulupe Faletau, Curry and Watson would offer pace and stamina in abundance.
Faletau’s past deeds in a Lions jersey would normally tip the scales in his favour but, ancora, Gatland will be looking to see how Jack Conan, another supposed understudy to have made an impact, goes this weekend. And we haven’t even mentioned the possibility of starting big Courtney Lawes at 6 ……
South Africa’s World Cup triumph took place almost 21 months ago but the foundations of their success are virtually all still there. Everything was based on control, power and set-piece dominance, with their celebrated ‘Bomb Squad’ of beefy replacements crucial to Rassie Erasmus’s strategy. UN 6-2 bench split ensured that pretty much an entire fresh pack could be whistled up, allowing the Boks to finish as strongly as they started. The Lions know exactly what is coming so the challenge is how best to defuse the looming threat. History shows it can be done, come la 1997 Lions demonstrated by picking low, awkward scrummagers to confound the taller Os du Randt and Adrian Garvey.
This time the Lions will be desperately hoping Wyn Jones, prominent on Wednesday, is fit to play at loosehead with Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler both offering plenty on the tighthead side. Jamie George and Mako Vunipola also know all about Vincent Koch, their teammate at Saracens – not that it did England much good in the World Cup final. Frans Malherbe, nel frattempo, is 6ft 3in tall and did not face the Lions last Wednesday; Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira has retired. With injuries or Covid isolation logistics also in danger of removing Duane Vermeulen, RG Snyman, Lood de Jager and Siya Kolisi from the first Test equation, could there be an early chance of a smash-and-grab Lions offensive up front?
As Gatland keeps saying, the Lions have not revealed all their tactical cards yet. It has been partly down to circumstances, with their backline options frequently reduced by injury or Covid absences. Robbie Henshaw, per esempio, has not featured since last month’s fixture against Japan at Murrayfield and will need to prove his fitness against the Stormers following hamstring trouble before Gatland can ink him in to his first Test midfield.
Assuming he does so, he will surely start, having looked the most effective centre in this year’s Six Nations. With Dan Biggar looking increasingly likely to start at 10 – his kicking skills and ability to regather the ball in the air count heavily in his favour – that leaves just one midfield berth available. Owen Farrell offers plenty at second receiver but perhaps not as much as Henshaw or Bundee Aki as a line-breaking ball-carrier. A 13, nel frattempo, the under-rated Chris Harris is doing everything asked of him and offers the unselfish midfield glue the Lions will need to withstand the likes of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.
It does not feel entirely a coincidence that Gatland has asked Harris to back up just three days on from Wednesday’s game. He needs to see the previously unseen combination of Harris and Henshaw – Sly and Robbie? – go live.
A key part of the Lions’ gameplan will be a strong finish to matches, with Gatland quietly encouraged by the inability of SA A to score a single point after the interval in Wednesday’s encounter. Certain players, suggested the head coach, are best deployed off the bench and the English quartet of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola, Sinckler and Lawes can all add a dash of dynamism.
Così, pure, would Hamish Watson or Sam Simmonds. In terms of the outside backs it looks like a straight choice between Duhan van der Merwe or Elliot Daly, assuming neither have made the starting XV. Which leaves room for two tactically-savvy, tempo-raising half-backs. Murray and Farrell have already experienced the pressure-filled crucible of a Lions Test; it was Farrell’s boot which secured the series draw in New Zealand in 2017.
But what if Marcus Smith rips it up on his Lions debut? Could he supply the leftfield creative spark, a la Matt Dawson in 1997, that turns the entire series? Impress this weekend and weighty doors could yet open.