The thinking behind Warren Gatland's huge selection calls as he aims to save the series

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Bundee Aki and Sam Simmonds - Getty Images
Bundee Aki and Sam Simmonds - Getty Images

Here we are. Four years of anticipation boils down to a sizzling series-decider in Cape Town between the British and Irish Lions and South Africa.

Fittingly, at the end of a truly madcap tour, Warren Gatland has assembled a match-day squad full of intrigue. This is an attempt to outline the thinking behind a fascinating selection, and what the Lions must do to prevail.

Dan still the man, but needs help from his centres

There are four new starters in the Lions back division for Saturday, but at least there is existing cohesion.

Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe and Dan Biggar all started the win over Japan at Murrayfield back in June. Scotland scrum-half Ali Price was on the bench that day, and switches roles with Conor Murray for the series decider against South Africa.

Biggar is the sort of character who will be able to laugh off the external fuss surrounding his meagre tally of three passes in the Lions’ second Test defeat.

That is just as well, because it is a big show of faith from Warren Gatland to start the fly-half for a third consecutive weekend – more so because his distribution will be crucial to the Lions outflanking South Africa.

In that victory over Japan, so much came through Biggar while his team Lions were in possession. The build-up to Van der Merwe’s try summed that up.

This phase is interesting, because Henshaw begins in behind three forwards and could feed the wide channels if Biggar finds him a pull-back pass:

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Instead, Biggar locates flat-running Iain Henderson and there is a tip-on to Rory Sutherland:

On the next phase, Biggar finds Adams with a looping pass before Van der Merwe tears down the short side.

Others will have to help Biggar if the Lions are to consistently find width and challenge the connection between South Africa’s pressing wings and Willie le Roux.

In the second Test, they attempted an early bounce-back move to manipulate the Springboks’ back three. From a lineout, Murray feeds Henshaw. Note that both Lions wings and Stuart Hogg are over towards the far side.

That keeps Le Roux up flatter beyond Cheslin Kolbe. Makazole Mapimpi will be sweeping behind Le Roux, with Faf de Klerk covering the near touchline. Watch Maro Itoje:

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As Henshaw finds Biggar, the lock limps towards the near touchline in a bid to keep a low profile. Henshaw spins in the same direction. Biggar feeds Jack Conan…

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…and then zig-zags, chipping over towards Itoje. South Africa regroup, though:

De Klerk makes the tackle on Itoje but Mapimpi demonstrates how sharp South Africa’s back three are. He is so quick to stop tracking across and to back up De Klerk:

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Later in the first half, while Kolbe was in the sin bin, Biggar takes a pass from Murray at first-receiver. South Africa look narrow, with De Klerk on the edge and Handré Pollard in behind.

Henshaw is in the second-receiver slot, but does not get the ball. Biggar holds on, perhaps spooked by the presence of De Klerk, and carries himself:

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On the next phase, Henshaw flings a pass over De Klerk to Hogg from first-receiver:

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Against Japan, the Lions zig-zagged a great deal in phase-play with Conan hanging wide and both Adams and Van der Merwe roaming off their wings.

Aki and Henshaw were defensively superb in Ireland’s win over England five months ago. But moments like this Aki pass from second-receiver in the build-up to Conan’s try will help the Lions trouble South Africa:

Jacques Nienaber’s defence is far too robust to be undone by a single playmaker, even if De Klerk, one of their most important and intuitive players, has been ruled out. Biggar cannot impart width on his own.

Williams returns to shore up the back-field

Hogg and Anthony Watson have paid the price for the Lions’ inability to control the aerial exchanges in the second half of the second Test, with Van der Merwe presumably retained for his first-phase punch.

The connection between Biggar and Williams is a strong one that will be pivotal if the Lions are to improve in the kicking duel. Take this passage from the second warm-up match against the Sharks.

We begin with a 22 drop-out hit by Lionel Cronje:

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Biggar catches it…

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…and returns fire:

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Williams then points him into position as the Lions adopt a 13-2 defensive formation with the long-time Wales teammates covering the back-field behind a crowded front line:

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The Sharks eventually gather Biggar’s strike and Cronje kicks down-field again. Williams scampers across, takes a diving catch and links with Van der Merwe to instigate a counter:

Again, De Klerk’s absence is a significant loss for South Africa. It weakens their kicking game considerably. Williams gives the Lions greater solidity.

Referee Raynal will allow fierce breakdown fight

Amid some gruesome numbers that lay bare the Lions’ limited attack in the second Test, another interesting – and telling – statistic has escaped wider attention.

According to Opta, South Africa won all 70 rucks that they spent in possession last Saturday in Cape Town. The previous weekend, with Maro Itoje to the fore, they lost three of 67.

That might not sound like a disastrous return, but jackal turnovers often shift momentum drastically. Think of Itoje’s steal close to the try-line in the first half of the series-opener.

On Saturday, this was a curious moment. From a Dan Biggar bomb, a chasing Robbie Henshaw causes Willie le Roux to spill. Chris Harris tackles Handré Pollard and it appears as though Itoje and Jack Conan have done enough to force a holding-on penalty:

Ben O’Keeffe sees things differently. During the wrestle for possession, the referee shouts “ball’s up, ball’s up” and then awards a scrum to the Springboks. His explanation will not have clarified matters for the Lions:

“It’s not coming out, it’s just a tackle. I’ve got both players on the ball.”

This rationale would have made more sense if O’Keeffe had declared that the ball had come out and that the tireless Franco Mostert had subsequently held Itoje above the ground, which his call of “ball’s up” seemed to suggest.

Whereas the Lions did not register a single successful jackal turnover, with the miserly Springboks only conceding six turnovers in total over the 80 minutes, the tourists lost five of their 77 rucks. As well as aerial wobbles and lineout struggles, problems with support play and attacking breakdown contributed to their listless second half.

The man in the middle for the series decider is Mathieu Raynal. Following on from Nic Berry and O’Keeffe, the Frenchman is fond of a breakdown scrap.

During the 2021 Six Nations, he oversaw Ireland’s matches against Italy and England. In both of them, jackallers pushed their luck and were rewarded. Tadhg Beirne was especially disruptive in the second of these matches, wrecking England’s fluency in phase-play. That makes his omission from the match-day 23 rather odd.

Bundee Aki has been the Lions’ most prolific jackaller this summer. Given the opportunity, he should slow down the Springboks’ phase-play in midfield and prevent them generating impetus. Gatland will, of course, be hoping that there is no repeat of the red card that Raynal showed to Aki towards the end of Ireland’s victory over England.

As well as Conan, Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes, Wyn Jones and Ken Owens are effective on the floor. Their priority is obvious, though.

A scrummaging front row…

Wyn Jones finally gets his Test start, having recovered from a shoulder complaint. Alongside him at hooker is Ken Owens. The veteran Scarlet has the worst throwing success rate of the three hookers among the Lions squad, but it is a close-run thing.

With Franco Mostert shifting to blindside flanker and Lood de Jager teaming up with Eben Etzebeth in the second-row engine-room, the Springboks will have an imposing defensive lineout. Do not be surprised if the Lions borrow a notorious tactic from Wales and keep most of their kicks in-field.

Jones and Owens enjoyed their strongest performances against South Africa A, a highlight being this five-metre put-in for their opponents. They held firm…

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…and Trevor Nyakane was eventually penalised for collapsing after Wayne Barnes, the assistant referee on the near side, alerted Jaco Peyper:

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Rugby World Cup-winning props Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff have gradually improved for the Springboks over recent weeks, but Owens and Jones represent another tried and tested combination.

…with a bench to cover tight and loose

Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler are a dynamic trio of front-row replacements.

Conor Murray offers control and Elliot Daly brings versatility with Finn Russell something of a wildcard capable of conjuring a piece of magic. The selections of Adam Beard, ahead of Tadhg Beirne, and Sam Simmonds are most intriguing.

Simmonds has been fairly quiet on this tour, but did snaffle a jackal turnover against South Africa A…

…before stretching his legs to score as the Lions cut loose against the Stormers:

Like Russell, he has the pace to manufacture something out of nothing.

Maul defence is Gatland’s reason for unleashing Beard. It is a canny move, because the Springboks’ drive sucked the life out of the Lions last weekend.

Returning to the South Africa A fixture, this is Beard at his maul-wrecking best. Etzebeth takes Malcolm Marx’s throw at the front…

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…and Beard hooks his long right arm around immediately to trouble the ball transfer:

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From there, as teammates including Itoje pile in, Beard swings around Etzebeth’s back:

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Eventually, the maul disintegrates. Marx has to break off, and Tom Curry is there to make a choke tackle:

The timing of replacements will be crucial. Gatland bettered Erasmus and Nienaber in this regard in the first Test, with South Africa sharper in the second. It may be that some are left unused.

Gatland has evidently aimed to nullify South Africa strengths in areas that hurt the Lions in the second Test.

Once again, though, he has made bold yet considered calls in a bid to win a Test series. It should be another compelling contest in Cape Town.

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