The dust has settled on the delayed Euros and Football has decided once again to delay coming home. Now it’s time to focus our attention on the Lions Tour to South Africa and see if the best of GB and Ireland can repeat the success of 1997 and bring home a series win.
We Love Sport’s Shôn Douglas (@shondo) is back with a recap of everything from the Lions in South Africa…what’s been happening while you’ve all been shouting for Jack Grealish to start, singing Sweet Caroline and throwing pints in the air to celebrate?
LIONS SO FAR
Saturday 26 June – Edinburgh
Lions 28 v 10 Japan
In what was, by and large, a friendly, the British and Irish Lions ran out fairly comfortable winners against a touring Japan side.
With Warren Gatland’s side missing a number of players due to club duty and injury, the performance was a little disjointed in places with the visitors having more possession, however very much a “job done” for a warm-up game.
The game was unfortunately marred by serious injuries to tour captain, Alun Wyn Jones, and Welsh counterpart Justin Tipuric which have ruled them out of the remainder of the tour. The question as to whether the game was a worthwhile affair rather than just a money-spinner will remain unanswered but the squad will be worse off without them both.
Gatland moved quickly to bring Welsh pair Adam Beard and Josh Navidi into the tour squad and handed veteran Ireland scrum-half, Connor Murray, the tour captaincy – the Munsterman describing it as “an unbelievable honour”.
Saturday 3 July – Johannesburg
Sigma Lions 14 v Lions 56
Bolstered by players returning to fitness and a week training in the South African heat, the Lions ran riot in Jo’burg!
A strong team posted eight tries to the hosts’ two. A debut try for the youngest Lion Louis Rees-Zammit after only three minutes set the wheels in motion for a rout, with Josh Adams running in an impressive four and with no fewer than five different scorers over the course of a thoroughly professional demolition job on a sub-par Sigma Lions.
Owen Farrell was imperious with the boot, bagging each of the extras while the stand out player was the Six Nations’ player of the tournament, Scotland’s Hamish Watson who proved plenty of his doubters wrong with a performance that earned him player of the match.
Wednesday 7 July – Johannesburg
Cell C Sharks 7 v 54 Lions
Shortly before the line ups were announced ahead of the first mid-weeker, news spread that a player and member of staff had tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a frantic reshuffle of the squad as a result.
With Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Tadgh Beirne, Connor Murray, Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris and Anthony Watson all unavailable – Gatland was left with only Finn Russell as a replacement back on the bench.
Again, early tries for Duhan van der Merwe and that man Josh Adams gave the Lions a comfortable platform to work from and they tightened their control on the game despite some fairly frustrating penalties given away. Adams continued his astonishing scoring run, this time from full back, chalking up a hat trick and bringing his total to eight tries in just two matches.
The coaching team will be a little concerned about the penalty count against the Lions, as they clocked up 14 penalties for a number of offences. Against a more ruthless opposition these could have seen the scoreboard looking a lot less dominant, the Sharks’ decisions to kick to touch letting the Lions off on this occasion.
All in all, it was a dominant display against a side widely expected to give the Lions their sternest test to date.
Saturday 10 July – Pretoria
Cell C Sharks 31 v 71 Lions
Following the cancellation of the next fixture against Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria was due to COVID-19, midweek opponents Cell C Sharks took up the challenge of facing the Lions for the second time in a week and what followed was a true “game of two halves”.
Again, the selection was hindered by players still in isolation and Maro Itoje suffering a stomach bug, but a strong line up captained by Jamie George started in blistering fashion again – scoring through Chris Harris after only four minutes.
The half-time scoreline of 26-26 as a result of some loose handling giving the hosts the opportunity for breakaway tries was cause for concern for Gatland’s men. Was it not for an avoidable red card to Sharks’ Jaden Hendrikse for an elbow on Liam Williams on the deck, it may have ended up a more even final score?
Anthony Watson, who missed the midweek fixture, looking electric and picked off two tries as well as an assist for England colleague Tom Curry.
A potentially tour-ending Achilles injury to Finn Russell has given Harlequins fly-half, Marcus Smith, the potential cherry on the top of a pretty perfect year. The youngster, making only his second appearance for England, found out he’d been called up as he came off the pitch during England’s comprehensive win against Canada.
The players now only have two more opportunities to stake a claim for a starting jersey, firstly in Cape Town as the Lions face a South Africa A side on Wednesday 14 July and then Saturday 17 July against the DHL Stormers – also in Cape Town.
Gatland and his team will be able to take consolation in the positive early signs from the sides picked ahead of what is likely to be an attritional battle against the reigning World Champions – but decision time is looming.
The Springboks have had their own troubles ahead of the first test. Their second game against Georgia was cancelled due to outbreaks of COVID-19 in both camps. This lead to players having to go into isolation and throwing the team’s preparations into disarray.
Since then another nine positive cases have come through, of which six are players – including World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolosi.
Having not played much Rugby (or any!) as a unit since the Rugby World Cup in Japan, there’s a risk of ring rustiness within the undoubtedly talented squad, so losing fixtures will be the last thing Rassie Erasmus and his South Africa team want before facing the Lions.
TOUR AT RISK?
Questions rightly remain as to whether the decision to proceed with the tour to South Africa was the right thing to do considering the continuing spread of COVID-19 in both the UK and South Africa.
Initial suggestions to bring the tour to the UK were rejected out of hand and the reassuring noises from both camps give the impression that all is well.
However, although the powers that be remain convinced that the tour will conclude, if the virus continues to work through both teams then there is a real risk that the series will turn into a farce with both sides putting third string line-ups out in what should be the highlight of any professional rugby player’s career and in some instances their last hurrah.
Proximity to the Rugby World Cup in 2023 has been cited as one of the key drivers for the tour to proceed, while more cynical individuals believe the financial needs of the South African Rugby Union are the overriding rationale for the spectacle to continue…albeit behind closed doors.
Whatever the outcome, as we count down to the Lions first test against South Africa on the 24th there can be no margin for error with COVID compliance. All members of the squads and management team should be kept in secure bubbles. This should avoid a most hotly anticipated of tours being consigned to the bin of what might have been.
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