Why the Lions series rests on the first Test

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Lions teams must win the first Test to win the series.

Is there an exception? 1989. The British and Irish lions rise from the dead in Australia. That’s it: the proverbial proof of the one-anomaly rule.

Add to that the rarity of the Springboks losing two tests in a row at home and you have this truth: Warren Gatland will have told his players that this first test – devastated by COVID, empty stadium, forever in doubt and highly anticipated – the be all and put an end to everything.

Win now. In fact, I imagine Gatland told them to win the first 20 minutes of the first half, then the first half, and no debates or excuses.

The first 30 minutes of the Lions’ loss to the nearly Boks on this tour will be all he needs for his admonitions, but he can also refer to Durban in 2009, when the Lions were taken aback by the brutality of the Boks.

The crowd won’t be there, but there’s an uncanny violence to silence stadiums in the event of a collision or martial arts. The UFC fighters who fought for just the judges and coaches for a while were locked in an intimate and desperate embrace.

The noise of a full grandstand can sometimes offer solace. To be beaten, pancaked, folded, battered or owned in total silence, except for the referee’s breath and a halfback yapping, is real humiliation.

And so are the gladiators running to the cavernous field.

Surprises galore.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The Lions start Elliot Daly outside the center. Nicholas Bishop and I had a friendly debate about this when the squad was first announced. We were both right.

I said Chris Harris was in no way ready, which is why Daly was the man, despite not being a real 13. Nick rightly said there was no evidence that Daly was ready or even elected as 13.

How could Daly contain a Lukhanyo Am-Cheslin Kolbe break, or read a Willie le Roux ghost run, in that channel if he rarely plays there and doesn’t bother recovering from a mistake?

But here we are. This Daly gambit, combined with the choices of going Scottish and launching the big blond battleship Duhan van der Merwe with the hair plug-on-fire Stuart Hogg, rather than the clever Welshmen Josh Adams and Liam Williams, means it only safe pair of hands and brains on the back belong to Anthony Watson.

The rest of the Lions’ rear guard follows form, with Robbie Henshaw in the middle and the hyper-competitive Dan Biggar, the best ten-12 combination they had.

And a vital one it is, with smooth Handre Pollard and dynamic Damian de Allende a well-oiled machine of bash, boot and bamboozle.

Dan Biggar arranges a pass

(Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Livewire scrum half Ali Price is preferred over former tour captain Conor Murray, who seems deceptively slow, having lost a foot of pace from the yard he’d already lost.

Price is probably seen as the best antidote to the thoroughly annoying Faf de Klerk, but number nine was the Lions’ worst position a year ago and nothing has changed. Price is a charging machine. He panics. And sometimes he tries too hard. The Lions coaches overestimate themselves here.

But the old Welsh coach’s biggest call was to beat one of the best Welsh number eights of modern times in favor of relatively untested Irishman Jack Conan.

A loose trio of Lions from great Courtney Lawes, running Tom Curry and barbarian Conan is athletic, has lineups and good hands. Not sure how it will function together when breaking down.

All the whores of the Lions look in shape. If Luke Cowan-Dickie Bongi tries to submerge Mbonambi, he will receive a rough jolt. The only whore to come lower than Bongi was Keven Mealamu, who seemed to play like a lucky spider.

And what about the Box?

Perhaps to show he’s his own man, Jacques Nienaber seems to have drowned out his waterboy Rassie Erasmus and picked a bomb squad front row that’s actually significantly better than the starting trio, not just the same or nearly as good.

This can backfire. If Trevor Nyakane falls flat, as he usually does, territory is easily lost. If Raw Ox Nche can’t handle the human vessel that is Tadhg Furlong, the Lions can win the first half.

It’s a long way from Duane Vermeulen to wee Kwagga Smith. Smith isn’t short of heart, but he just can’t stop Lawes on the try-line, one on one.

Kwagga Smith

(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

My guess is that Smith was selected to sweep and dive when the Lions’ backs cut inward, as Hogg and van der Merwe both seem to do almost every time. He may be the second de Klerk to disrupt enemy lines. But it’s a mistake and a gift to the Lions.

Still, any platoon with a rejuvenated Pieter-Steph du Toit, excited Eben Etzebeth, combative Mbonambi and work-your-stockings Franco Mostert won’t be easily bullied. When the couch kicks in, you’ll have almost an entire Western Cape forward crew for the Boks, playing at their home base and ready to mess around.

I’ve seen just enough of Kyle Sinckler and Rory Sutherland to know that they can actually compete against a Steven Kitshoff-Malcolm Marx-Frans Malherbe power shove.

For the rest, Elton Jantjies, Rynhardt Elstadt and Damian Willemse have all written mistakes and fantasies over them. So it could come down to the tough Pollard, de Klerk, Am, Kolbe and the copious tight six (with Lood de Jager being an astonishingly good replacement to have) to see the Boks home safe and sound.

This is a golden opportunity for the Lions. They should win. But both teams have a few flakes, and it may come down to who makes the biggest howler at the most inopportune moment.

Box with two or three, after the Lions win the first half but collapse in the second half in the scrum, both sides must be carded.

The teams

South Africa
W. Le Roux, C. Kolbe, L. Am, D. De Allende, M. Mapimpi, H. Pollard, F. De Klerk, O. Nché, B. Mbonambi, T. Nyakane, E. Etzebeth, F. Mostert , S. Kolisi (c), PS. du Toit, K. Smith. Substitutes: M. Marx, S. Kitshoff, F. Malherbe, L. De Jager, R. Elstadt, H. Jantjies, E. Jantjies, D. Willemse.

lions
S. Hogg, A Watson, E. Daly, R. Henshaw, D. van der Merwe, D. Biggar, A. Price, W. Jones, L. Cowan-Dickie, T. Furlong, M. Itoje, AW. Jones, C. Lawes, T. Curry, J. Conan. Replacements: K. Owens, R. Sutherland, K. Sinckler, T. Beirne, H. Watson, C. Murray, O. Farrell, L. Williams.

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