Il britannico & Irish Lions have swapped the harsh landscape of the highveld for the spectacular Western Cape, but on this tour that simply means staring at a different hotel-room wall. The latest Covid-19 news from the South African camp, where the World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi is among a fresh clutch of players to have tested positive, is a reminder that the resumption of normal service remains a distant dream.
With the Springboks’ head coach, Jacques Nienaber, still in isolation, Rassie Erasmus is back in temporary charge of the day-to-day running of a squad that has recorded another nine positive coronavirus cases, six players and three staff members. Further disruption cannot be ruled out but a sizeable chunk of the squad have at least been cleared to resume training after being confined to their rooms since last Monday.
Given the first Test is taking place on Saturday week there is precious little leeway available to either hard-pressed coaching team. Every Lions tour is about frantically laying key pieces of track before a fast-approaching steam train – the Test series – thunders around the bend and Warren Gatland’s job is being further complicated by the dispiritingly one-sided nature of the warm-up fixtures.
Last week may come to be remembered as the moment the entire rationale for traditional Lions provincial games jumped the shark. In the wake of Saturday’s 71-31 win over the franchise already beaten 54-7 on Wednesday it is increasingly possible to argue that, in terms of meaningful preparation, the Lions would be better either limbering up against the home unions or staging in-house training games behind closed doors.
Gatland’s end-of-tour report already has the makings of a lively read, with the eight-game format having further undermined the supposedly sacred concept of players being able to hurdle their way into the Test side by impressing against decent local opposition. In fairness to the Sharks they posed a few physical questions in the first half but even without a 45th-minute red card for Jaden Hendrikse the Lions would still have won with a bit to spare.
For all the strong running of Duhan van der Merwe and the whirring feet of his fellow winger Anthony Watson, the day’s most significant development was the call-up of Harlequins’s Marcus Smith as cover for Finn Russell who, if five days in a surgical boot fails to improve things, may have his tour ended prematurely by a damaged achilles tendon.
While he was always unlikely to start the opening Test, Russell gave the Lions a dash of something different and challenged his fellow 10s, Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell, to raise their own games. Adesso, for all the attacking skills that have recently seen Smith conjure a Premiership title for Harlequins and collect the first of potentially many England caps, it is now a certainty that Biggar and Farrell – fitness permitting – will both feature in the first Test 23.
The more you look at it, the more it feels as if a dozen positions in Gatland’s starting XV are already pretty much sewn up. Among the backs, Liam Williams at full-back, Watson and Josh Adams on the wings, Robbie Henshaw at centre and the skipper Conor Murray at scrum-half will all take some displacing. A hard core of seven forwards – Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Tadhg Beirne, Tom Curry and Taulupe Faletau – must be virtually there as well.
That probably leaves three spots – fly-half, centre and loosehead prop – to be filled, along with the bench. It is still possible Biggar, Bundee Aki, Elliot Daly and Mako Vunipola will feature but Owen Farrell’s name will be back in the mix at either 10 o 12 while Scotland’s defensively-sound Chris Harris keeps showing why Gatland picked him. The profile of Scotland’s Rory Sutherland is also rising, unless Alun Wyn Jones turns in a colossal scrummaging performance in this week’s final auditions.
If not, the Wales prop plus Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler, Jonny Hill, Hamish Watson, Ali Price and Daly will all be hopeful of bench recognition, assuming the curse of Covid can be sidestepped. This is a uniquely strange, mentally demanding tour but a Lions Test jersey never loses its lustre.