Following the British and Irish Lions’ 49-3 victory over the Stormers on Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Cape Town.
This was a refreshingly physical run-out for the 2021 British and Irish Lions. For 60 minutes of the game, the Stormers were extremely powerful in defence and the fact that all of the first-half tries came from Lions forwards demonstrated that this was a close game until the last quarter, when the visitors stretched away to win 49-3.
For Warren Gatland, he’ll be delighted that his charges were given a good test up front. Clearing out had obviously been a big focus for them in the training leading up and, with Luke Cowan-Dickie putting in a big claim for a Test start, they came through a tricky examination in Cape Town.
For some of the Class of 2021, this might be the last time they’ve pulled on a Lions jersey and the only regret will be no fan ever saw them do it in person. For the others, the tour is about to get real.
Something old, something new
To see Marcus Smith and Alun Wyn Jones walking off a pitch arm in arm on this Lions tour would have been something of a long shot bet in the aftermath of the Japan game at Murrayfield, but both men have suddenly hit this tour running.
Greeted by a wonderfully unconscious comedic moment from referee Wayne Barnes “Number 19… oh sorry, Alun…”, the big Osprey is a father figure to the lads around him, none more so than Smith, whose meteoric rise this season continued on an almost vertical trajectory.
The young Quin was absolutely brilliant – pacey, clever, varied and he controlled the play better than any fly-half than the Lions yet have fielded.
The media kneejerk will reach marching proportions over his performance, but Gatland will recognise this was a hit out not a Test match. He won’t be there yet, but who would bet against the little genius getting a cap before the series is done. He is a remarkable talent.
On Saturday, we certainly saw Cowan-Dickie stretch away in the hooker stakes, with Ali Price at half-back injecting pace that has alluded other scrum-halves thus far and they both seem sure to start next weekend. Both locks went well too, scoring tries, passing and tackling, but Jonny Hill’s intensity around the ruck was noticeable, with Adam Beard his disruptive self in the lineout and either will serve the Lions well in a Test.
Hamish Watson is a curious situation. There’s no doubt that Tom Curry will start, but the only question remains in which of the three positions? Should Gatland be prepared to cede lineout options over carrying and clearing, then Watson is the man. If not, then it’s a toss-up between Tadhg Beirne and Courtney Lawes, with the Irishman more complete, offering width in the outside channels and the Saint the more powerful at the breakdown.
In the backs, whilst Josh Adams finally showed he can be a mere mortal, Duhan van der Merwe again showed how much go-forward he offers in traffic, with Robbie Henshaw showing great touches.
However, one of the great things about this tour is that none of the players that are available for selection for the Tests would let the Lions down. The competition is intense, and that’s a great situation for Gatland and his men.
Now that the provincial games are done and dusted, there’s a lot of things that look good and many things that have gone right.
However, the shape of the centres and back division has little clarity. The centres are much of a muchness with only Bundee Aki and Elliot Daly offering form and points of difference, if at opposite ends of the rugby evolutionary scale. Fly-half is similar, with Dan Biggar favourite to start, but with other options available.
In the forwards, Maro Itoje’s partner is far from clear, although many expect Gatland to simply revert to Jones, whilst the back-row still lacks clarity of balance and number eight is still their problem position. Training will be crucial this week and a lot of the selections will be on how combinations gel, but the good news is, the lack of clarity is one caused by good form, not poor form.
The mini tour of 2021 has reached its neap point. The talking is done, the task ahead is huge and the next three games’ results will render irrelevant anything that’s gone before.
The Lions go in with no worry about their potency in attack and the set-piece seems to be solid, with a particular nod to the brilliance of the lineout, which has been flawless. They will need to up the intensity at the breakdown and they’ll be mindful of getting too narrow in the wider channels.
The focus is clear – the last month has been training hit outs and the Tests will be a massive step up in intensity but the hope is there.
The British and Irish Lions Tour of 2021 is about to start in earnest.