When it comes to selection for the final Test of a British & Irish Lions series, Warren Gatland has historically proved a shrewd operator. In 2013 his reshuffled Lions, containing six starting personnel changes as is also now the case, trounced the Wallabies 41-16. Four years ago the All Blacks also proved unable to seal a series most had expected them to win.
It is perhaps in that context that Gatland’s last spin of the 2021 roulette wheel – and almost certainly of his Lions’ career – should be viewed. This is a head coach who has been in this type of unforgiving casino before and opted for some brave punts which, subsequently, came up trumps. He has long had an intuitive feel for exactly what it takes to emerge in credit on the biggest of occasions.
It does not, as he made clear on another beautifully sunny winter’s day in the Western Cape, get much bigger than this weekend.
The first priority, accordingly, has been to address the areas in which the Springboks looked most ominous in the final quarter of the second Test. As suggested, Wyn Jones, Liam Williams and Josh Adams were always a short-odds price to return.
Bolster the scrum and make fewer errors beneath the high ball and there will be at least the foundations of a platform from which the Springboks may yet be outfoxed. Up the tempo, get over the gainline and string more phases together and Gatland believes the hosts will have less opportunity to slow the game down as expertly or frequently as they did in the second Test.
Hence the inclusion of Ali Price and Bundee Aki at scrum-half and centre respectively, with Ken Owens also picked at hooker to try and supply more set-piece solidity. All of it makes absolute sense, as does the rejigged bench. If there is a series to be won late on by a flash of individual inspiration, Finn Russell and Sam Simmonds are as likely as anyone in this Lions squad to provide it.
It is a matchday 23, in other words, picked with two ideal scenarios in mind: a faster start and a grandstand finish. As Gatland rightly points out there was little to separate the teams on the scoreboard in the second Test until Lukhanyo Am’s 62nd converted try, despite the Lions’ aerial frailties and lack of clear attacking opportunities. “We were disappointed with the last 20 minutes when we gave away eight penalties,” said Gatland. “Four of them we considered were pretty needless and ones that we shouldn’t have given away.”
The Lions will also be quietly encouraged by the South African team selection, with Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit both injured and the powerful Duane Vermeulen not sufficiently fit even for the bench. It does not mean the Boks will be any less committed, with the influential Franco Mostert now deployed at flanker, but the absence of both De Klerk and Du Toit does remove two of their most prominent World Cup winners.
De Klerk’s box kicking and wind-up skills were certainly prominent last weekend and it is hard to imagine the Lions losing out aerially to the extent they did in the second Test. “Basically we got nothing from the air in the second half,” lamented Gatland. “South Africa kicked the ball 22 times in the second half, we’ve only kicked it 10 keer. We tried to get some momentum and play some rugby, but we just never got into the game in that last 20 minutes or so. That’s why there have been the changes. We definitely want to play some more rugby … we’ve got to be positive in terms of shifting the ball when we do create opportunities.”
It was certainly the stat of the week – if not the year – that the Lions’ fly-half Dan Biggar threw just three passes last Saturday. Eat your heart out, Barry John. No one is suggesting the touring side should now throw the ball around like the Harlem Globetrotters but getting on the front foot and looking to do something that will either turn or wrongfoot the Boks’ rush defence will be vital. A trademark Biggar regather here or a little deft Russell chip there and it remains the Lions view there could yet be a twist in this series tale, with an extra specialist lock in Adam Beard now on the bench to add second-half energy. “I wouldn’t say South Africa have been creative from an attacking perspective,” sniffed Gatland. “They haven’t really stressed us in any way.”
With Aki and Henshaw having shared many a game together in Connacht’s midfield and the returning Jones wedged in alongside his Scarlets teammate Owens, there is also a sense of reverting to some proven combinations, albeit with a number of high profile names missing out.
While Duhan van der Merwe will be relieved to hang on to his starting jersey, who would have imagined a few weeks’ ago, byvoorbeeld, that Gatland would go into this kind of show-stopping game without Owen Farrell? Or with Jamie George, Anthony Watson and Taulupe Faletau, also key figures in 2017, all omitted from the matchday 23?
In the final analysis, wel, the coach has remained true to himself. If the Lions are going to secure this series they are going to have to reach out and grab it. Be proactive and Gatland’s spinning roulette wheel may yet come up red.