A turbulent week on and off the paddock has disrupted the selection of the Lions XV upcoming Test Boks in their own backyard:
1) ‘Lazarus’ (aka Alun Wyn Jones) tour Captain and the most experienced Lions player in the professional era has returned to the team. When he went off three weeks ago with what we all thought was a ‘tour ending’ shoulder dislocation in the game against Japan we didn't think we'd see him again in a Lions shirt. We were wrong! This Talismanic captain will make a huge impact over the next 3 weeks, whether as a starting player, contributing off the bench or just as tour captain.
2) The selection of a full Springbok side for South Africa ‘A’, and ongoing mind games of Rassie Erasmus, the Boks Director of Rugby and Warren Gatland. The matchday squad for the South Africa ‘A’ game last Wednesday contained no less than 18 of the World Cup-winning squad, effectively providing the tourists with a ‘fourth test’.
Having played only one test match against Georgia since the World Cup in 2019 the Boks clearly feel they are short of match practice and test intensity. Erasmus seems rattled! A request was made for another Boks ‘A’ side game against the Lions last Saturday in Cape Town. Having been in situations like this before, the wily Warren Gatland refused the offer sticking instead to the original plan to play the Stormers. When speaking to the press he stated "the Lions are not here to assist the Boks with their preparations for the Test Series."
3) The selection of a full Bok Squad for the South Africa ‘A’ match, provided the Lions with an opportunity to test themselves in a game of test match intensity. Those that performed well stole a march on the rest of the squad for a spot in the first Test's starting XV.
Prior to last weekends game against South Africa A, my Lions starting XV looked like this
15 – Williams; 14 – Anthony Watson; 13 – Daly; 12 – Farrell; 11 – Adams; 10 – Biggar; 9 – Murray; 1 – Sutherland; 2 – George; 3 – Furlong; 4 – Itoje; 5 – Lawes; 6 – Beirne; 7 – Hamish Watson; 8 – Faletau; 16 – Cowan-Dickie; 17 – Jones; 18 – Sinckler; 19 – Henderson; 20 – Curry; 21 – Price; 22 – Harris; 23 – van der Merwe
The completion of the final two ‘warm-up’ games, and the three key points mentioned above, has necessitated a revision of my test match squad. This selection is based on all 40+ Lions squad members being available for selection and injury-free (except for Finn Russell, who we know is out for a further week or two - and resulted in the call-up of Marcus Smith last weekend).
Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, and Josh Adams remain in my test side. All three are good under the high ball and judging by the way the SA ‘A’ team played, this will be essential. They also, offer a degree of physicality and options in attack, thereby sneaking in ahead of the likes of Duhan van der Merwe and Louis Rees-Zammit. A tough call on the latter two, and as well as Stuart Hogg who in my book must be considered one of the unluckier Lions’ tourists in the professional era.
I listed Farrell and Daly as my centre paring last week. However, based on the performance of Bundi Aki and Eliot Daly against South Africa ‘A’, I am going to stick with that 12-13 combination. Aki brings huge physicality and defensive qualities to the game whilst Daly can turn a match on its head through his instinctive brilliance. He also has a huge boot on him, which means his ability to kick penalties from c 50 metres out is invaluable - as proved in New Zealand in 2017.
Whilst Robbie Henshaw had a great game against Japan, sadly his hamstring injury has left him off the pace in terms of pushing for a place in the XV. His performance against the Stormers, whilst solid, did not do enough to convince me he is ‘test match’ ready. A class player, he may yet play a part in the series though. As for Owen Farrell, he was another player who unfortunately failed to impress in the game against SA ‘A’ despite being a class act. Granted he played at flyhalf to fill in for Biggar but, in the current form in mid-field, I have chosen Aki. I may be proved wrong! Farrell is a certain selection off the bench, covering both Centre and fly-half positions.
I retain my selection of Conor Murray and Dan Biggar, despite Ali Price having an excellent game against the Stormers, and Biggar being out through injury for both games. Biggar’s man of the match performance against Japan set the benchmark, and no one (apart from perhaps Marcus Smith) has produced a performance to wrestle the No. 10 shirt away from him. Ali Price and Farrell (as mentioned) are on my bench as they offer much, impact wise. Farrell may feel hard done by but will inevitably play a big part in the series at some stage.
Mako Vunipola stated his claim for a Test berth in the game against SA ‘A’. The set-piece held firm against the Bok pack, and his ability around the park in a game of test match intensity cements his place in my starting XV. His vast experience from two previous tours as tight-head makes this a shoo-in selection. Rory Sutherland and Wyn Jones may feel hard done by, though one of them of course will be in the match-day 23. They have not quite done enough in the other warm-up games to displace Mako, though, for his sheer physicality and bulk, I plum for Sutherland on the bench.
Tadhg Furlong continues to stake a claim to be the premier world-class tight-head, so goes unchallenged as a starter in my XV. Kyle Sinckler remains as back-up in the 23.
The biggest change in the front row is the inclusion of Luke Cowan-Dickie. His man-of-the-match performance against the Stormers where he was bristling with intent puts him in front of Jamie George as a starter. Granted, George performed with great effect in the SA ‘A’ game, where the intensity was huge, but ‘LCD’ gets the nod. George makes the 23 however, as Ken Owens is a way behind these two in my selection ‘pecking order.
Maro Itoje is the world-class disrupter and performer that the Lions need. His performance mid-week against South Africa ‘A’ had everyone waxing lyrical about the need for players to put their hands up for selection. Ian McGeeghan (Lions Coach in 1989, 1997 and 2009), no less, felt this was the most complete performance of any player across all the warm-up games.
The return of Alun Wyn-Jones and his proving his fitness in the Stormers game makes him an automatic selection as starter. I do not see any benefit in him being on the bench, as his leadership, intensity, and game management, not least world-class qualities need to be present from the off. Also, if he gets injured, there will be an almost equal figure in Courtney Lawes to replace him. Were he to be injured off the bench, this would potentially cause issues. AWJ, therefore, accompanies Itoje in the second row, with Lawes as back-up.
Tom Curry’s performance against South Africa ‘A’ sealed his spot as the open-side flanker. He was everywhere and took the game to the Boks. Like Itoje, he put his hand up when it mattered most, and whilst Hamish Watson may question what he has to do to earn a starting slot, he will probably admit that Curry’s performance on Wednesday was an affirmation of his back-row selection. However, Watson is selected in the 23. Based on his performance mid-week, I retain Tadgh Beirne on the blindside. His all-around display, offering additional line-out options cements his place as my No. 6. Despite being pushed hard, I have kept faith with Talupe Faletau at Eighth Man. Sam Simmonds and Jack Conan performed very well in both matches, but the experience of Faletau from two previous tours, means he shades it on selection for me. Sam Simmonds is on the bench as offers great strength, versatility and impact should that be
So, after much thought and ‘self debate, I have gone with the following selection for the First Test match:
15 – Williams; 14 – Anthony Watson; 13 – Eliot Daly; 12 – Bundi Aki; 11 – Josh Adams; 10 – Dan
Biggar; 9 – Conor Murray; 8 – Talupe Faletau; 7 – Tom Curry; 6 - Tadgh Beirne; 5 – Alun Wyn Jones (Captain); 4 – Maro Itoje; 3 – Tadgh Furlong; 2 – Luke Cowan-Dickie; 1 – Mako Vunipola.
On the bench (I have gone with a 6-2 split, between forwards and backs):
16 – Jamie George; 17 – Rory Sutherland; 18 – Kyle Sinckler; 19 – Courtney Lawes: 20 – Hamish Watson; 21 – Sam Simmonds, 22 – Ali Price; 23 – Owen Farrell.
So, there it is. I will be extremely interested in how Warren Gatland thinks, and the make-up of his 23 to be announced on Thursday. What is your view? It would be great to get your thoughts!
The First Test Selection Dilemma.docx