British & Irish Lions: Analysing Warren Gatland’s five key selections for South Africa opener
Warren Gatland ’s side includes a number of surprise selections, with an attacking feel and a forward pack picked to directly combat South Africa’s World Cup-winning unit.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” said Gatland. “We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations across the 23, however, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on.” Here are five of the key selection decisions made by Gatland and his staff ahead of the First Test:
Alun Wyn Jones
There was, as far as we are aware, no divine intervention in his remarkable recovery but Alun Wyn Jones’s inclusion as captain for the first Test certainly has a miraculous feel.
Less than four weeks ago Jones had dislocated his shoulder against Japan at Murrayfield and was hastily ruled out of the tour, but the venerable second row was back in training with Wales within two and a half weeks and recalled to the Lions party to be reinstated as tour captain within three.
As recently as Monday, however, Gatland was casting doubts on his chances of a start in the first Test despite a bright cameo against the Stormers last Saturday.
Yet Jones has made the starting line-up and takes the captaincy, partly due to an absence of other realistic leadership options. Potential alternative leaders included Conor Murray, but the scrum-half has been pushed out of the side by Ali Price’s sharpness; much as Luke Cowan-Dickie surging form has left Ken Owens with a place on the bench.
Jones is therefore a key figure, as much for coolness of head and leadership under pressure as the readiness of that newly-healed shoulder for what is expected to be an extremely physical series. He reforms a partnership with Maro Itoje that went well in New Zealand four years ago; their battle in tighter confines with Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert could dictate the opening encounter of the series.
Perhaps no position caused more consternation before the Lions squad was named as scrum-half, with plenty of possibilities at No 9.
At the time of naming Price appeared to be third choice, with Wales international Gareth Davies’s intensity and familiarity with Gatland and Conor Murray’s solidity, physicality and experience expected to be favoured.
And so it seemed when Murray was appointed as tour captain in Jones’s stead after the Japan game, but Price has forced his way in nonetheless. He has been the best No 9 in the warm-up games and his inclusion hints that the Lions may favour a faster attacking game-plan.
Price’s sharpness around the base of the ruck has lifted the Lions’ tempo and caused problems for defences, and while he perhaps lacks the more stable, calming presence that Murray can bring at his best, the Irishman has been below par.
In what is likely to be a kick-heavy series, Price’s accuracy with the boot must be spot on, particularly with South Africa, led by opposite number Faf de Klerk, and fine harassers around the fringes.
Gatland indicated after the Lions final warm-up fixture against the Stormers that the back row and back three would cause him the most headaches before naming his side, and he has sprung a mild surprise in each position.
In some ways, the blindside selection was predictable – Courtney Lawes has largely been cotton-wooled recently with the Lions’ coaches content with his skill-set and form while managing a couple of niggly injury issues.
Lawes’s abilities is a direct match for reigning World Rugby men’s player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit, a pair of long-limbed defensive tone-setters picked on the blindside who will be asked to compete in the air at the lineout and provide the requisite physicality. Tadhg Beirne is a particularly unfortunate exclusion.
Jack Conan’s selection ahead of Taulupe Faletau is perhaps the strongest indication that past exploits in the Lions’ red jersey have counted for little. Conan’s foot-work through contact will be key against the blitz South African defence.
Joining Conan and Lawes is Tom Curry, who has edged out Hamish Watson. To have two outstanding opensides in such form is a blessing rather than a curse for Gatland and Watson’s explosiveness should ensure little drop off when he is called from the bench.
Duhan van der Merwe
Duhan van der Merwe’s place on the wing ahead of Josh Adams is the selection likeliest to cause surprise.
Adams has been in exceptional tryscoring form and on paper offers greater defensive and aerial security than Van der Merwe.
Yet the Worcester-bound wing has been name-checked at every possible opportunity by Gatland as a standout performer since arriving in South Africa, and Van der Merwe does not seem to lack motivation back in his native homeland.
The wing is perhaps picked to add X-Factor and broaden the Lions attacking options. His size would seem to be a real asset.
His role will be intriguing. Gregor Townsend is a creative coach and with Elliot Daly a lighter No 13 alongside Robbie Henshaw, it may be that Van der Merwe is utilised in midfield at times to challenge the Springboks’ defence as a ball-carrier.
Contrary to otherwise correct reports about the make-up of the team, the Lions bench is formed of five forwards and three backs, a traditional split.
It is entirely possible this is a deviation from Gatland’s original plan, and one influenced by South Africa’s decision to abandon the 6-2 split that brought them so much success en route to the 2019 World Cup triumph in Japan.
With Liam Williams cleared after his concussion, it is a strong Lions bench with all bases covered, as will be required to combat South Africa’s particularly powerful phalanx of forwards held in reserve.