Stick versus Twist: Minor tinkering or wholesale changes?


After a humbling result on Saturday's second test, the British and Irish Lions are licking their wounds as they prepare for a ‘cup final’ this coming week.

Whilst the first half was an unspectacular execution of the game plan, the second half was anything but. Trying to play the Springboks at their own game was a recipe for disaster, and so it proved. The aerial kicking game strategy used for both test matches proved the Lions un-doing, as the Boks hammered home their advantage of building on the Lions defensive mistakes with sheer physicality and more intense support play.

This leads to this coming weekend, where Warren Gatland and his co-selectors have to make some key decisions – whether to stick to a game plan and a settled side with minor changes or to opt for a totally different strategy and introduce fresh legs with players that can make things happen and disrupt the Bok’s tried and tested physical and aerial bombardment.

Either way, changes are necessary and Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones have both said that this will happen for the final test. Last Saturday’s test proved a game too far for some, whilst no one really got to grips with any game plan in the second half to counter the Springbok’s superiority.

So, pending both approaches, I have proposed two test squads as follows – that with minor tinkering, and that containing wholesale changes.

Minor Tinkering:


Back Three:

The back three struggled under the high ball last week, with Hogg and van der Merwe being particularly susceptible. Therefore, these two have become casualties as part of these changes. Anthony Watson is too experienced and without much ball, still managed to have a reasonable game. Therefore, with Watson remaining on the right-wing, Liam Williams and Josh Adams come into the starting XV as a full-back and left-wing, respectively. This will bring more stability under the aerial attack with Adams being a proven try scorer with the ability to create space out of nowhere.

Mid-Field:


Both Robbie Henshaw and Chris Harris had reasonable games in the second test; therefore, with the necessity to score tries (ideally) and utilise the back three in attack, I continue with these two. Playing Bundi Aki, to me, continues to play down the 10-12 channel for which South Africa is renowned for being so strong, and has proved to date. Eliot Daly would continue to bench given his versatility across all positions.

Half-backs:


Whilst Dan Biggar had a solid game, Conor Murray was off the pace and slow to the breakdown. Therefore, Ali Price comes back into the starting XV with Owen Farrell taking over the reins at fly-half. A proven test animal, I feel his ability to read the game better than Biggar, will enable the Lions to change strategy to suit play over the 80 minutes. I would look at Biggar to remain part of the test 23, with Conor Murray included.

Front Row:

A big part of the defeat last week centred on the set-piece, which was less stable than the week before. Therefore, securing that platform is a must for me.

Anticipating Wyn Jones return to fitness, he comes in at loose-head, with Tadgh Furlong retaining the tight-head position. However, I would bring Jamie George in at Hooker as he adds a component of stability for me in the set-piece and the line-out. The bench would consist of Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie and pending Kyle Sinckler’s hearing for alleged biting he would complete the front row finishers. If that is not successful, Zander Fagerson comes into the 23 as an under-study to Furlong.

Second Row:

I would stick with Alun-Wyn Jones (as Captain) and Maro Itoje as two world-class players. This engine room has been immense in both of the tests to date, and too many changes, along with those in the front row, may introduce too many combination challenges in the last week. Courtney Lawes would be my man on the bench to cover second row.

Back Row:


Whilst Jack Conan and Courtney Lawes did not have bad games, I felt they were under par. Therefore, I would bring in fresh legs and introduce Tadgh Beirne and Toby Faletau into the starting XV, with Tom Curry retained as an open-side flanker. Hamish Watson and would act as cover on the bench.

Therefore, we have the following as a ‘Stick XV’ and a bench to complete the test squad:

15 – Williams; 14 – A Watson; 13 – Harris; 12 – Henshaw; 11 – Adams; 10 – Farrell; 9 – Price; 1 – W Jones; 2 – George; 3 – Furlong; 4 – Itoje; 5 – AW Jones; 6 – Beirne; 7 – Curry; 8 – Faletau

16 – Cowan-Dickie; 17 - Vunipola; 18 – Sinckler / Fagerson; 19 – Lawes; 20 – H Watson; 21 – Murray; 22 – Biggar; 23 – Daly.

Wholesale Changes:

How does one completely disrupt the Springboks in their own back yard, and bring an element of unbridled fearlessness into play, underpinned by a solid base from which to attack and score points? By being totally flexible and trusting those within the squad to perform at the highest level, no matter what experience they bring to the party.

So, in keeping with a need to bring fresh ideas and approaches to tactics, in addition to fresh legs, this is my ‘Twist XV’ selection:

Back Three:

Liam Williams and Josh Adams would be certainties for selection, and I would add Louis Rees-Zammit into the mix, just to see what he could bring to the test stage at the highest level. Whilst the latter may be fallible under the high ball, he adds some electrifying pace to proceedings, thereby matching Cheslin Kolbe in what could be an engaging contest.


Mid-Field:

I would stick with Robbie Henshaw but bring Bundi Aki in to mix it up a bit. A proven combination for Ireland, they should work well in countering any Springbok attack, yet be positioned to distribute the ball to the back three who have the pace to match the Boks in open play. Eliot Daly would be my bench-man to cover the back five as has been the case previously.

Halfbacks:

Ali Price remains my scrum-half, but my selection at fly-half is Finn Russell (subject to fitness) to complete the Scottish combination. If Russell is not fit, I would retain Owen Farrell as a starter. Marcus Smith would be introduced to the bench, irrespective of who starts at 10, with Conor Murray covering at scrum-half within the 23.

Front Row:

My front row would remain unchanged, with Wyn Jones, Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong starting, in providing a secure and stable platform. Jamie George would captain the side (see below). These three would be underpinned by Vunipola, Cowan-Dickie and Sinckler (if available) or Fagerson as a bench front row.

Second Row:

Maro Itoje would retain his place as a world-class operator with Adam Beard adding some ballast and a fresh pair of legs to the set-piece, in addition to his capabilities in open play.

Harsh on Alun-Wyn Joes and Iain Henderson, but Gatland has been known to make tough calls as he did in Australia in 2013, leaving out the legend, Brian O’Driscoll, in the final test. I would, however, retain AWJ in my 23.

Back Row:


Tadgh Beirne would be my automatic starter at blindside flanker, with Hamish Watson starting at open-side. To complete this line-up, I would go with Sam Simmonds, who in my eyes would counter Jasper Wiese’s game approach and physicality at No. 8.

Tom Curry would be included on the bench as cover.

So, there you have it – a dynamic roll of the dice, to counter the Boks in throwing caution to the wind yet providing a stable platform from which to operate.

Therefore my ‘Twist XV’ is as follows, supported by the eight finishers as listed:

15 – Williams; 14 – Rees-Zammit; 13 – Henshaw; 12 – Aki; 11 – Adams; 10 – Russell; 9 – Price; 1 – W Jones; 2 – George; 3 – Furlong; 4 – Itoje; 5 – Beard; 6 – Beirne; 7 – H Watson; 8 – Simmonds

16 – Cowan-Dickie; 17 - Vunipola; 18 – Sinckler / Fagerson; 19 – AW Jones; 20 – Curry; 21 – Murray; 22 – Smith; 23 – Daly.

I will be extremely interested in how Warren Gatland thinks, and the make-up of his 23 to be announced on Tuesday or Wednesday.

In all honesty, I think he will probably go for a mix of the above, and in all likelihood, the following:

15 – Williams; 14 – A Watson; 13 – Henshaw; 12 – Farrell; 11 – Adams; 10 – Biggar; 9 – Price; 1 – W Jones; 2 – George; 3 – Furlong; 4 – Itoje; 5 – AW Jones; 6 – Beirne; 7 – Curry; 8 – Faletau

16 – Cowan-Dickie; 17 - Vunipola; 18 – Sinckler / Fagerson; 19 – Lawes; 20 – Simmonds; 21 – Murray; 22 – Russell; 23 – Daly.

We shall see!

What is your view? It would be great to get your thoughts!


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