Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray, and Bundee Aki should swell Irish Lions starters

As the Impi warriors performed their traditional pre-match battle cry in the silence of an empty Cape Town Stadium on Saturday, the travesty of ploughing ahead with a Covid-era Lions series — despite dozens of reasons to do otherwise — was laid bare for all to see.

As civil unrest continues to wreak havoc across the country, the games occurring against the backdrop of 337 riot-related deaths will hardly sit well with many South Africans, who have watched their country descend into chaos in recent weeks.

But whether it should be happening or not is irrelevant at this point. It is, and those of us watching from the comfort of our homes in Western Europe were treated to a cagey and intriguing opening test that sets things up very nicely for next weekend.

That the opening half of Saturday’s game looked a bit like two newly adopted dogs trying to suss one another out in their new owner’s home should come as no surprise. The Lions, with the exception of the ‘fourth test’ against South Africa ‘A’ 10 days earlier, waltzed through their warm up games with such ease, that the encounters revealed very little about who was best placed to take on the World Cup winners.

Already dealing with the logistical nightmare of having their squad scattered across the globe, South Africa had the added burden of trying to cultivate a sense of cohesion amongst a group that had not played a test match since they lifted the Webb Ellis Cup. They certainly didn’t look like a side that hadn’t played together in almost two years, comfortably taking control of the first half and dominating an uncertain looking, error-prone Lions.

While Dan Biggar bossed the offensive kicking game well in the opening exchanges, the Lions played right into the Boks’ defence when they tried to keep ball in hand. When Lukhanyo Am shot out of the line and buried Elliot Daly as he tried to drift off a Biggar pass after three minutes, it should have been a warning shot to the Lions that the South Africans weren’t going to let them away with taking too much out of the ball.

Despite this, it happened multiple times. The Lions got caught on the back foot, inviting pressure from the Boks’ defence and finding their momentum killed repeatedly. Robbie Henshaw was the unfortunate victim of the other stand-out hit of the match, when world player of the year Peter Steph du Toit lined him up in a similar fashion. It’s something the Lions will have to either park or sharpen up significantly going into the second test.

You would have been forgiven for thinking the second half was going to go the same way as the first. But the Lions emerged rejuvenated from half-time and a combination of brave decision making, doggedness, and ultimately, bottle, saw them hook the fishing line to the collars of the South Africans and reel them in slowly in the third quarter.

The bomb squad — the name given to the Springbok replacements — became an institution during their World Cup run, but it was the Lions bench that made the difference at the weekend.

The introduction of Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens, and Hamish Watson upfront gave the injection of energy and abrasiveness that you need from your finishers when playing against specimens as physical as the South Africans. Conor Murray and Owen Farrell entered the fray at just the right time to bring a cool, collected, and flawless kicking game to the equation.

While the tourists can be proud of the fact they ground out a valiant victory after falling nine points behind, it does feel like they got out of jail with the result. South Africa imploded in a third-quarter that saw their lack of game time together catch up on them. They became sloppy, ill-disciplined, and ran out of steam.

While the Lions showed incredible composure and belief to capitalise on the weaknesses appearing in front of them, I will be surprised if their opponents fall away in the same manner next week. A change of tack is going to be needed to temper what is bound to be an onslaught of brutality; the Boks don’t have any other option — it’s win or bust.

There are two types of changes you can make week to week in professional sport. The first is to change the tactical approach and the second is to change personnel. Ordinarily, teams are constrained by having worked for a long period of time to play a certain way, meaning tactically, you can only make marginal changes from one week to the next. Similarly, teams will usually have a clearly defined starting 15, with a small number of exceptions.

The Lions have neither of those issues on their plate. They are a hodgepodge of various club and country game plans as it is, and have assembled a squad of 40 players that all look comfortable at test level. I expect them to kick more aggressively on the front foot, given the calamity it caused the Springboks at times on Saturday, but other than that, their approach will largely be the same.

That just leaves the issue of what players to put on the field. Last weekend’s team was a winning one, after all. While there are strong arguments against changing a winning team, the nature of the victory doesn’t convince me that Gatland should, or will, stay with the original starting 15.

After losing three lineouts in the first half, Luke Cowan-Dickie will be under pressure to keep his position. Every hooker has been there. Sometimes things just goes wrong, and I was pleased to see him laugh off his crooked throw to prop Rory Sutherland at the front of the lineout at one point. I recall doing the same when I threw the ball off the back of Paul O’Connell’s arse as he stood facing the other way against Saracens in 2015. What else can you do but laugh? That particular faux pas made it into a rugby bloopers video which a Georgian teammate in Grenoble took great pleasure in showing me one morning before training.

Gatland will probably start Jamie George or Ken Owens this weekend, but I think it’s a harsh call. Cowan-Dickie has been consistently excellent for a long time now and offers so much around the pitch, particularly at the breakdown, that his omission would be a mistake. Tadhg Beirne should start at blindside. I saw many call for Courtney Lawes to be the man of the match at full time but I didn’t see him offer enough of what he can bring to the equation to justify keeping the in-form Beirne out of the team.

Openside was probably the most contentious selection call of the opening test and Tom Curry conceding three penalties in the opening 30 minutes vindicated those who thought Hamish Watson should have gotten the nod. Though he was lucky to stay on the field following a foolish tip tackle, I would be shocked if Watson didn’t start this weekend.

Behind the scrum, Murray proved his value enough to move into a starting jersey. He kicked perfectly after his entry, causing mayhem in the Springbok back field which led to several knock-ons, turnovers and moments of general messiness. Given the arm-wrestle nature of the opening encounter, it is unlikely that Ali Price would get the opportunity to light the place up any more in the second test than he did in the first, meaning Murray is the logical choice to start.

Gatland seemed certain to make Elliot Daly his starting 13 for the test series, having played him there repeatedly in the warm up games. The addition of some power to the midfield would bear a lot of fruit, however, and for that reason I expect Bundee Aki to start at 12 with Henshaw moving outside him. Henshaw looked extremely sharp with the limited opportunities he had, and having a powerful attacking threat like Aki inside him will only present him with more space to do damage.

I’m obviously hoping for a Lions series win, but it would salvage what has been a largely forgettable tour so far if South Africa were to come out on top this weekend and make things go down to the wire in test number three. Whatever the result, we can expect a bruising, entertaining encounter now that both sides have blown off the cobwebs.

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