DURBAN - THE British and Irish Lions kick off their tour of South Africa in Saturday at a venue that is more highlands than highveld, and if that sounds incongruous, consider that they have a sturdy product of Hoerskool Outeniqua on the left wing.
Murrayfield in Edinburgh is the venue for the tour “opener” and it is only the second time in the history of the Lions that they are playing a match on their home turf. In 2005, Clive Woodward warmed up in Cardiff against Argentina before proceeding to New Zealand for one of the unhappiest tours in the history of this great collective from the Home Nations.
Murrayfield is the venue for the tour “opener” and it is only the second time in the history of the Lions that they are playing a match on their home turf.
In 2005, Sir Clive Woodward warmed up in Cardiff against Argentina before proceeding to New Zealand for one of the unhappiest tours in the history of the great collective from the Home Nations.
Woodward broke with tradition because he was a pedantic coach notorious for over-organising but Warren Gatland can be excused because he had two matches lopped off the initial itinerary as SA Rugby squeezed the tour in two bio-bubbles when the Covid-19 pandemic worsened, one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town.
Thus a “home” match to give the Lions a fair shot at running the rule over a conglomeration of the best of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
And that is why the line-up today should not be confused with what the line-up for the first Test against the Springboks on 24 July will probably look like. Coach Gatland, commendably, has said he is not allowing himself to have any preconceived ideas of what his Test team will be. Of course he has notions of certain combinations, but he knows that nothing should be cast in stone until every player on tour has played a match and that is because one of the great traditions of the Lions is the guarantee that a couple of bolters will explode from the fringes to claim Test places.
Gatland knows from the notorious mistakes of Woodward that giving each player a fair shot is the lifeblood of the tour, and taking that away torpedoes tour morale.
In 2005, Woodward controversially divided his squad into two — the Test squad and the dirt-trackers who were relegated to the midweek games. It was a spectacular failure and the unhappy tourists were pulverised by the All Blacks in the three Tests.
This week there was a telling quote from Gatland which nicely sums up his selection policy leading up to the Tests. “It’s about trying to be clear in our thoughts but not being closed off to possibilities because someone will come through that a lot of people won’t expect,” Gatland said.
Hence, the match 23 to play Japan is a mixture of virtual certainties to play in the Tests and hopefuls. To give an idea of the mixing and matching, there are 11 England players in the tour squad but none in the starting line-up. This is mostly because some of them are playing in the English Premiership final between Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins tomorrow, others joined the Lions squad from last weekend’s semi-finals too late to be considered for selection, while five Saracens players involved in a promotion playoff also arrived late.
It is the first time in 71 years that the Lions will play a match with no Englishmen in the starting line-up — a handful are on the bench — but that will obviously change ...
Of the 15 that will start against Japan there are six Welshmen, six Irishmen, three Scots and a Van der Merwe!