The British & Irish Lions tour is back on track and Sir Clive Woodward has weighed in with a cunning back-row combination to battle the Springboks, writes ZELIM NEL.
While the former England coach may not be a fan favourite in these parts of the world, guiding England to the pinnacle of the 2003 Rugby World Cup does make his opinion worth considering.
Featured on ruck.co.uk discussing the starting XV he would pick for the four-Test tour of South Africa, Woodward named a loose trio of Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Tom Curry (England) and Justin Tipuric (Wales).
At first blush, the selection of Beirne, the 1.98m Munster lock, at blindside flank deploys a piece on the Lions’ side of the board to counter 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, Pieter-Steph du Toit.
However, the remainder of the back row is rounded out by surprising selections, given the omission of headline ball-carriers such as Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander and Toby Faletau.
Bok fans would expect to see at least one of the snubbed trio included given the ferocity of the Bok defence and the premium placed on using a gainline troll to generate momentum.
Indeed, what stands out is the absence of an atomic ball-carrier in the back row to match the blunt force and support-play contributions of Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi.
Perhaps Woodward’s selections reveal a focus on the other side of the ball. Pundits expect the series to feature a titanic set-piece tussle, underwritten by low-risk tactics in matches that swing against the team which blinks first.
It’s a synopsis similar to what was expected from the 2019 RWC Pool B showdown between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama.
The All Blacks clinched the match 23-13 with a back row of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read.
With the athletic Read boosting the lineout, among many other facets, Savea and Cane were two heat-seeking missiles launched on defence.
New Zealand won the match with Savea and Cane featuring in a back row that made fewer carries than their Bok counterparts and completed more tackles at a higher rate of efficiency.
South Africa finished the match with 18 turnovers and nine penalties conceded in 104 carries while the All Blacks only turned the ball over 13 times for four penalties in 110 runs.
Even more so than their Kiwi opposites, Curry (1.85m, 110kg) and Tipuric (1.88m, 102kg) are built close to the deck, two versatile forwards with a nose for the ball, grit, high work rate and veritable ground skills to support the hunt.
Though they’re both very capable of carrying the ball, they will be tagged as threats at the breakdown.
Such threats may force heavy rucks from South Africa’s attack and narrow the line of runners the Lions defence has to account for. And perhaps that’s precisely the objective of Woodward’s selections.
POLL: What kind of player would you pick to start at No 8 against South Africa if you were head coach of the Lions?