The Lions’ clash against South Africa A tonight is a Test match in all but name. You just have to look at the South Africans’ team sheet to know that while this is technically an ‘A’ side, it is a key plank of their preparation for the Tests.
The Springboks lost one of their two warm-up fixtures against Georgia due to Covid-19, so are playing catch-up. The Lions are a scratch team, but it is possible that the Boks will be even more undercooked, having played just one Test since the World Cup Final in Japan in 2019.
Therefore, it is no surprise to see 11 World Cup winners, many of them big names, taking the field tonight. The forward pack, from Steven Kitshoff to Eben Etzebeth to Pieter-Steph du Toit is properly fearsome.
Behind the pack, there is Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and the rest. This will be a big step up for the Lions.
They have played Japan, the Sigma Lions and the Sharks, twice, scoring plenty of points and winning well each time. Players have been putting their hand up for selection, and it has been an encouraging start. But this will be another story entirely.
Until now, every good performance on tour has had that asterisk around the opposition, because the Lions have not been exposed to much quality. All the best players in South Africa have been with the Springboks.
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If a Lion plays well tonight, against Test opposition, it is a big statement. There are a series of Test quality match-ups, like De Klerk against Conor Murray at scrum-half, or the lock pairings of Etzebeth and Franco Mostert against Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson.
The second row is a traditional area of strength for South Africa, with so much power and muscle, and it will be such an intriguing battle.
Ten days out from the First Test is a great time to play their toughest opposition in the lead-up. Covid is complicating selection on a day-to-day basis, making everything more fragile, but the Lions appear to be in a good position.
But this has enough distance from the big games to allow bodies to freshen up and plans to form. We will know a lot more about Test selection when this game is done. I reckon Warren Gatland has 10 or 11 positions sewn up, and is looking for the final few pieces of the jigsaw.
I have been impressed with the Lions over the last week. A lot has been thrown at them by Covid, and they have been adaptable and flexible. The squad’s pride in the jersey and desire to keep the show on the road has been abundantly obvious.
I also liked the way Gatland dead-batted any suggestion that they could play South Africa A again on Friday. The Lions schedule is in place to help them prepare for the series. Being in another country as a scratch team, they have enough stacked against them already, and they are there to win the series.
There is no need to bend over backwards to help their hosts!So far, the Lions games have been open, flowing affairs. They haven’t required solid defensive structures to win easily. That will change tonight in a game of Test-match intensity.
We will get a better look at their tactical plans as they put the final building blocks in place for the First Test in 10 days. It will be a proper test — and one they will absolutely relish.
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