When the British & Irish Lions announced their squad to tour South Africa, a lot of hype surrounded the selection. The omission of players such as CJ Stander, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi came to the fore as they were looked over, in favor of smaller and more mobile players. All indications were that the British & Irish Lions were coming to South Africa to try and run the home side off of their feet.
The game against Japan and the subsequent games against the South African domestic sides illustrated this as the Lions racked up high scores, with wingers Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Louis Rees-Zammit all grabbing themselves tries a plenty. Marcus Smith’s late call up, inadvertently overlooking Johnny Sexton also spoke to the Lions intent to play a running game.
Much was also made of the Lions superior fitness in the series. They had completed two full domestic seasons and a full schedule of preparation fixtures. They had a minor Covid outbreak in camp but nothing on the level of the one experienced by the Boks. The Lions went on to select Stuart Hogg at 15, who is an attacking threat of note, but is less suited to the aerial game than someone like Liam Williams, aptly named the “bomb diffuser”.
Two tests have now been played and unfortunately statistics don’t lie, the fact is the Springboks have scored three tries to the Lions 1. The Lions have failed to do the hard work up front and thus their backline hasn’t had any of the quick attacking ball they had gotten used to in the warm up fixtures. The Lions have been heavily reliant on the boot of Dan Biggar as he keeps the score board ticking and have seemed to have no response to the Springboks physicality.
The Lions shot themselves in the foot by selecting an attack based squad and then allowing themselves to be sucked into a physical and aerial battle that their match day selections simply hadn’t prepared them for. They were badly exposed in the second half of the second test and physical players such as Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Furlong must be crying out for some assistance in the enforcer roles they have been asked to play.
The glaring absence of true grunt and size in the Lions match day 23 has now become truly evident. Everyone knows what they are going to face when the play South Africa, it’s not hidden, it’s not new, but it is definitely difficult to overcome. Gatland’s ambitions of negating this with speed and agility simply have not materialized.
Warren Gatland will be left to rue his squad selection on Sunday if his side loses the decider and for what I believe is an obvious reason. They came to South Africa looking to play a fast paced style of rugby. They came undone by the power of the Springbok pack and when they failed to gain traction in the collisions, reverted to an aerial battle they were ill equipped to handle.
The inclusion of Bundee Aki illustrates that Gatland will now try to generate this go forward ball, but this is something the selection of Tuilagi could have assisted with from the outset. In the forwards, had Stander and Vunipola been present, or even Faletau given a proper run, they may have had better success in the collisions. Vunipola at 8 would have been tough to handle for a Bok loose trio missing the powerful Duane Vermeulen.
Had a stronger and bigger forward pack taken to the field, Gatland may just have found the attacking space out wide his troops so desperately desire as the Bok forwards would have had their work cut out for them. But alas, the Springboks have established a physical dominance over the tourists which will first have to be overcome this weekend, if the Lions have any hope of coming out on the other side as victors.
I don't believe the Lions have what it takes to beat the Boks at their own game and their selection for Saturday doesn't show that they will be looking to do much different, even if Finn Russell has been added onto the bench.