The Lions got 80 minutes under their belts against Japan last week, but it is with their first game on South African soil, against the Gauteng Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday, that the tour really gets going and feels real.
I made my Lions debut in Port Elizabeth, against Eastern Province, in 1997. It was the first game and I remember feeling very privileged, as I didn’t have to wait my turn. Everyone wants to get their tour under way, but there is only space for 23 players this weekend.
The intensity of each game and quality of opposition will ramp up the closer we get to the Tests, but first impressions do last. Players will be desperate to lay down a marker.
Every player will know approximately who they are up against in the battle for a Test jersey. The guys who played Japan last week did well. Nobody had a bad game. The responsibility of the 23 playing this week is to build on those performances and do better. At No10, Dan Biggar was man of the match last week, so the onus is on Finn Russell to throw the challenge back. That’s what you want in every position.
People look at Warren Gatland as a great tactical coach and manager of people. That is fair enough. He likes to have fun and is someone who has had success everywhere he has been. But I think an under-rated element with Gatland is how good a selector he is.
You can see that in the backline, with Russell’s selection. He is a wonderful talent and Gatland has given him every chance to thrive. He has his great friend Ali Price alongside him at scrum-half, the steady hand of Owen Farrell at centre and two more Scots, Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg, in his backline. Making Hogg captain is smart, too. He has not been at his very best for Exeter since the squad was named, so perhaps this will help rebuild some confidence.
I am looking forward to watching Courtney Lawes on the blindside. Having spent large chunks of this season out injured, I thought he was excellent off the bench at Murrayfield and can stake a real claim for a Test start.
I like the way the Lions back row is shaping up, too. It is clear they will have a big lineout jumper at blindside and a ball-playing No8. This makes sense. It is horses-for-courses selection, recognising where South Africa’s strengths lie and countering them.
They have a very big pack, with a particularly enormous tight five, so you have to meet that physical battle head on. And the lineout is so important, meaning you need plenty of jumping options. To be honest, if you are picking a guy like Hamish Watson, who is fantastic, on one side, you have to pick someone who can leap a bit higher, like Lawes, on the other. It’s about complementary selection.
It seems that the tour will be tweaked due to Covid-19, with all three Tests played in Cape Town, rather than just one. That would be no bad thing. The safety of the players is paramount and Cape Town is not as badly hit as Johannesburg right now.
From a purely rugby perspective, not only is Johannesburg the spiritual home of South African rugby, where they won the first of their three World Cups, but Cape Town is not at altitude.
Johannesburg is more than a mile above sea level, which makes life very tough. The heart rate rises and the ball flies further. I remember it feeling like having a blowtorch on the back of the throat for the first 20 minutes of playing there.
I’ve no doubt the Lions would be quite happy playing all three Tests in Cape Town, because it would be one less thing to think about and a leveller.
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