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England prop Mako Vunipola is in line to start the second Test against South Africa after his impactful display off the bench in last weekend’s 22-17 victory against the Springboks.
Vunipola was initially left out of the matchday squad for the first Test before Wyn Jones pulled out of the starting line-up with a shoulder injury. Vunipola subsequently came on in the 56th minute as the Lions decisively turned the tide in the scrum battle, replacing Scotland's Rory Sutherland.
Just two years ago, Vunipola was part of an England scrum that was hammered by South Africa in the 2019 World Cup final. Coming into the Lions camp, the 30-year-old was told directly by Lions coach Warren Gatland that his “fitness levels are not as good as they should be for international rugby”.
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Forwards coach Robin McBryde has also refined his scrummaging technique meaning Vunipola gained a moment of redemption against South Africa tighthead Frans Malherbe, his tormentor from the World Cup final. However impactful his appearance off the bench was, Vunipola is adamant they will have to go to another level in the second Test on Saturday.
“We understood fully that to beat the world champions, you have to take them on up front,” Vunipola said. “So we knew the challenge going into the game and it’s no different now. We were pleased with how the game went on Saturday but we understand that this weekend is going to be a bigger challenge.
“What we did last week won’t matter and it won’t be enough this week. We are looking forward to another big Test now so we have to get our preparation right and give it our best shot.”
Gatland hailed the improvements that Vunipola has made since the Lions have got to work on his fitness and technique. “He has made a huge impact,” Gatland said.
“He has scrummaged exceptionally well, carries great and we will see what happens over the next few days. I really felt for Wyn missing out, but I wasn’t in any way worried about Mako coming in and being a replacement off the bench.”
On Monday night Gatland and his coaching team met to resolves a number of other selection issues. There will be a temptation to beef up the midfield at the expense of outside centre Elliot Daly while Josh Adams could come into the back three.
Fly-half Dan Biggar will only be available to train on Thursday as he undergoes his return to play protocols from a suspected concussion.
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell has also started training again after an Achilles injury. “He could potentially be in the mix, to see how he pulls up,” Steve Tandy, the Lions defence coach, said. “I know he’s been reacting well to the training so again we’ll discuss all that this evening.”
Gatland indicated he would not be afraid to change a winning formula going into the crucial second Test on Saturday. “We'll have a debate tonight in and around selection,” Tandy said.
“We'll talk through the game and probably focus more on where we can get better as a team going into the second Test. We'll have a little bit of a review. There were lots of good performances and lots of areas we can improve on going into the second Test.”
While Gatland is not obliged to name his matchday squad until Thursday, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie says the earlier naming helps the squad’s preparations. “Definitely, you know where you stand then, if you are picked or not picked,” he said. “If I’m not picked I’ll be able to help the other two out as much as I can to perform at the weekend.
“It does give the starting team and bench confidence in the week that they can prepare together, rather than all preparing at the same time and then later in the week you’ve only got a few days to work as a XV.”
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