AFTER all the fretting over whether the whole expedition should go ahead in a country being ripped apart by a brutal third wave of the Covid pandemic.
After the horse trading over whether it would be better to relocate, postpone or cancel.
After the one-sided hit-outs for the Lions against underpowered provincial sides, the gloriously gritty victory for the tourists in the first Test, and the bad-tempered mind-games which preceded a rugged win for the Springboks in the second Test.
After all that, it comes down to Saturday.
The series is balanced on a razor’s edge at one win apiece. South Africa have the momentum of having blown away the Lions during the second half of the second Test, but they have lost two of their most important players to injury, and the Lions have a point to prove. The bookies have the hosts as narrow favourites, which is fair, but the tourists can win it if they get some key things right.
We’re not talking about set-piece, we’re not talking breakdown, and we’re not talking about the aerial battle. All those things are important, but they will only really come into play if the Lions match Springbok intensity – eyeball to eyeball – nobody takes a backward step.
2. The need for speed
The Lions believe they have the conditioning to exploit the world champions in the last quarter if they are able to play at tempo. The problem last Saturday was that despite both halves taking over an hour each to complete, the game had the least ball-in-play time of the tour. The tourist couldn’t build any momentum, so the Springboks didn’t tire, and it became a close quarters arm-wrestle which suited the home side.
Some of this was down to referee Ben O’Keeffe – perhaps wary of Rassie Erasmus’ pre-match antics – insisting on a deep analysis of almost every decision of note, and some of it was down to the Springboks – aided by Erasmus again, this time as the world’s most ponderous water-boy – taking as long as possible to ready themselves for each set-piece.
“It is definitely not something that is to our advantage, and we need to work on that and make sure that we keep that tempo up this weekend,” said Gatland during Tuesday’s team announcement.
The head coach added that his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, had been on O’Keeffe’s back throughout the match about minimising dead time, but the Lions must share the blame because they forfeited control of tempo by kicking so much ball to their opponents and by allowing themselves to get sucked into so many off-the-ball squabbles. The selection of Ali Price as starting scrum-half is clearly aimed at injecting some pace into game.
3. Give Duhan the ball
The big winger can count himself lucky to have retained his spot on the left wing after an error-strewn, ill-disciplined performance in the second Test. Frankly, there are better ball-players, there are better defenders and there are better men at collecting the opposition’s kicks in the squad – but the Springboks have a zero from 11 success rate in collecting high balls sent their way when van der Merwe is part of the chasing unit, and we all know how dangerous he can be with the ball in hand. Sometimes rugby is a simple game: give it to the big, fast guy and let him go.
4. Set-piece parity by any means necessary
The Lions were bullied out of the game in the second half last weekend. The loss of 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit proved to be a blessing in disguise for South Africa as it meant brought the hulking frame of Lood de Jaeger onto the field, with Franco Mostert shifting from the middle to the back-row, creating a super-charged home set-piece. Fit again Wyn Jones is apparently the best scrummaging loose-head in the Lions squad, and Ken Owens’ technique, power and experience should make a difference, while Adam Beard’s strength coming off the bench is as a line-out disruptor.
5. Let Finn be Finn
Gatland says he likes that the Scottish stand-off offers something different to Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. An Achilles injury meant Russell wasn’t a contender for the first two Tests but he is now fully fit and his varied attacking game will present the Springboks with a range of challenges which will give their ferocious rush defence pause for thought. Russell is a gamble – especially as he has only 88 minutes of rugby under his belt on this tour, and no minutes in the last month – but it needs to be him and not scrum-half Conor Murray dictating the shape of play during the last quarter.
6. Liam Williams must rule the air
Stuart Hogg is a better all-round player than Liam Williams, but the Welsh full-back is the best in the business under the high ball. He must justify his selection with a commanding performance under the inevitable aerial bombardment which is coming the Lions’ way.