Following the hard-fought 22-17 test victory over the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday night, the question is should the British & Irish Lions remain the same, or should Warren Gatland, make changes.
Never underestimate a wounded Springbok, and if the second test of 2009 is anything to go by, the physicality and intensity of this forthcoming test match is going to be something to remember.
Gatland, himself, said in a podcast earlier this week that the 2009 game at Loftus Versveld was the most physical game of rugby he had witnessed in all his three previous tours. The Lions need to be prepared for something similar.
So, with a potential series win only 80 minutes away, how will Warren Gatland approach his selection?
This is my thinking after the first test, where many things went right for the Lions but there were clear areas of improvement with some of the combinations not functioning as quite expected or intended.
Therefore my selection for the second test is as follows:
15 - Liam Williams
This will be very harsh on Stuart Hogg, but the Lions were quite fallible when exposed to the long kicking game of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard. Both Hogg’s and Watson’s positioning wasn’t what it should have been, and with Williams being the best exponent in this area that we have would be my selection at full-back. He is a proven operator, particularly under the high ball, and his performances in New Zealand in 2017 bear testament to that.
14 - Anthony Watson
Despite the positioning challenges mentioned above, Watson didn’t have a bad game. He was effective in attack on the occasions he did get the ball and is too experienced a test player to leave out of the XV. I don’t see any of the other wings displacing him.
13 - Chris Harris
A big and tough call here. I have gone for Chris Harris based on the physical attributes he brings to the party, particularly in defence.
Eliot Daly felt the impact of a very heavy tackle in the first few minutes and wasn’t the same force thereafter. Therefore Daly drops to the bench in my view, to provide options in midfield and the back three.
Some may argue that Robbie Henshaw should move to 13, with Bundi Aki at 12, and Gatland may very well go for that combination, but if the Lions are to utilise their wingers I believe they are going to need Harris to offer a hard-running distributing channel. I am concerned that Aki and Henshaw could potentially play into the Boks hands with their crash-bang approach up the middle.
Therefore Harris gets my vote.
12 - Robbie Henshaw
He had a good game on Saturday and is clearly the in-form centre. He showed no sign of the hamstring injury incurred in the Japan test match and seems back to full fitness. He created space, ran hard and, but for an excellent tackle by Willie le Roux, might have had a score.
11 - Durhan van der Merwe
I have retained the big winger given that he kept Cheslin Kolbe in check and made some hard physical runs in midfield. Also, having the physicality to worry the Boks may be an important facet in forcing them to consider what tactics they deploy this weekend.
Whilst Josh Adams or Louis Rees-Zammit may feel hard done by, as they have not put a foot wrong on tour, van der Merwe retains his place in my view.
10 - Dan Biggar
Subject to Biggar passing an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) and being passed fit for Saturday, he retains his place. A composed and assured performance last week, despite a couple of missed penalties, makes him a clear selection priority. He linked well with Henshaw and his understanding with Price in the 9-10 channel meant that the Boks were always being questioned.
Owen Farrell remains on the bench as the understudy.
If Biggar is ruled out by the HIA and isn’t fit to play, Farrell automatically shifts into the fly-half position, with Marcus Smith earning his first call up to the Test squad. What a meteoric rise that would be in the space of a few weeks for the young 22-year-old!!
9 - Alistair Price
Price had an excellent game and was superior to Faf de Klerk in the second half. His linking with Biggar and the quick service provided to him means he retains his place ahead of Connor Murray. Murray brought calmness and composure when it was most needed in the last 20 minutes so stays on the bench.
1 - Wyn Jones
Despite a good game, only being elevated to the starting XV with 48 hours notice, Rory Sutherland didn’t trouble the Springbok pack to the degree that he might have liked. A tough call for him, but I go for Wyn Jones as a proven scrummager being able to get underneath and dominate his tight-head better than Sutherland could.
I just think Jones adds more stability to the scrum, which will be crucial in the second test. The Lions cannot give away the scrum-related penalties that were awarded against them in the first test, and I deem Jones will mitigate that problem better than Sutherland.
Mako Vunipola also made a big difference to the pack off the bench, so retains his place in my 23. A tough call on Sutherland, but the Lions will only win this series as a squad, not as a select XV or 23.
2 - Ken Owens
Another big call. Whilst Luke Cowan-Dickie had a good game and scored a try, I felt he was fallible at the line-out. An example of that was a hurried short throw to the first receiver which was crooked, resulting in a scrum to the Springboks. Giving away possession like that will be an issue in the next game. Owens brings a calm head and experience to the fore and will add stability to the scrum given his Welsh association with Jones.
However, LCD retains his place in the 23 as an aggressive ‘in-your-face’ player that will ruffle feathers in the Bok camp should that be required.
3 - Tadgh Furlong
An immense game from a world-class tight-head. ‘Big Boys Rugby’ indeed and a performance to match! Furlong is again penned in from the start.
Kyle Sinckler retains his place as his understudy.
4 - Maro Itoje
World-class performance in the first test from a world-class player.
There is no one to touch him at the moment. Without question, he is the first name on the team sheet!
5 - Alun Wyn Jones
Am immense performance from the Captain in the First Test on Saturday, coupled with his superb leadership qualities, makes him a shoo-in.
His combination with Itoje makes this a duo that rivals any in test rugby anywhere in the world, and they nullified the Bok duo of Etzebeth and Mostert.
The fact that he lasted the full 80 minutes displaces any fitness concerns.
6 - Courtney Lawes
Probably his best performance in a test match - superb in defence, aggressive in attack - he took the game to the Boks.
Surpassed only by Itoje, he warranted Gatland’s selection.
Had AWJ not been fit, ‘The Enforcer’ was my choice at second row for the first test, in order to accommodate Tadgh Beirne.
However, Lawes ‘owns’ the No. 6 shirt now.
7 - Tom Curry
Despite some unnecessary penalties given away in the first half, Curry is retains his place. Quick to the break-down, strong in the tackle and very physical, the 23-year old ranks up there with the best in the world at the moment.
He has been pushed hard by Hamish Watson, though the latter was lucky not to be yellow-carded for his tackle on Le Roux when he came on as a replacement.
Watson retains his place on the bench though.
8 - Jack Conan
Conan may not have appeared to be a force on Saturday but did a huge amount of ‘unseen‘ work around the park. He brings hardness and a physical game that is not always picked up by casual viewer, he retains his place. His combination with Lawes and Curry worked well, so there is no reason to change this back three.
Toby Faletau may come into the 23, pending the forward / backs split on the bench, but Conan continues to progress and bring to the fore the form that forced his selection to the squad in the first instance.
So, there you have it.
To support this 15, I add the following to the bench to compete for the 23:
16 - Luke Cowan- Dickie; 17 - Mako Vunipola; 18 - Kyle Sinckler; 19 - Tadgh Beirne; 20 - Hamish Watson; 21 - Connor Murray; 22 - Owen Farrell ; 23 - Eliot Daly
A mouth-watering prospect awaits! What are your thoughts after the first test? Would you change anything?
Be great to get your thoughts and comments.