Lions bench could be key to outcome of final Test

The British & Irish Lions 2021 Test series against the Springboks has been a gladiatorial slugfest of epic proportions, writes former Lions centre SCOTT GIBBS.

The quality of rugby has unfortunately not been widely accepted yet, to the rugby purist, the to and fro of phenomenal 40-minute performances from both sides to win their respective Tests has been a spectacle to observe. Saturday’s final clash will, however, be decided by the team capable of engineering an 80-minute effort.

Looking at the selections of the starting XV, Warren Gatland is clearly still backing his team to bang down the door on the physical front. What has been apparent from the first two Tests, though, is that you can bang as hard as you want, the Springbok defensive door seems fortified.

The Boks have also shown their capability of creating chaos at lineout time, and fed off the non-event that was the Lions’ kicking game last week.

Wyn Jones’ promotion to the starting pack, as a specialist prop, is the only notable change to the men up front, with the other being Ken Owens coming in at hooker. The likes of Lawes, Conan, Curry, Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones were brilliant in the opening Test victory, but they will have to play the games of their lives on Saturday to secure a win in a Test that will be determined in the same close quarters as the first two.

Duhan van Der Merwe’s retention at wing comes as a bit of a surprise as Josh Adams and Liam Williams come in to form the back three pairing with him after an underwhelming collective effort from Van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson in the first two Tests. Van der Merwe’s selection, along with the promotion of Bundee Aki at inside centre, serve to reinforce that Gatland seems set on maintaining a direct and abrasive approach.

This approach hasn’t been the Lions’ strength over the series, and the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. However, the buffer to this insanity is, for me, the selections on the bench.

The big names of Farrell and Faletou falling away to clear space for Finn Russell and Sam Simmonds on the bench indicate that there is a notable plan B, if gameplan A isn’t fruitful.

Both Russell and Simmonds are dynamic players, characterised more by a game-breaking ability that could be suited to the latter stages of the match. So far, the Springboks have managed to shut down the Lions out wide as well as in the middle 30, so to break down such a tight defence the Lions need a deceptive attacking element.

Russell offers this element by pulling defenders in when he carries, and has a great lateral distribution game, while Simmonds, Daly and Vunipola bring a lot of energy from the bench.

Where the Lions need to look is to attack space from broken play, and this may very well be a game that needs a moment of genius or X factor to break a deadlock.

The symbiosis of Adams and Williams on counter-attack will be integral to this, while the Lions as a collective will also need to be conscious of creating more mismatches and offloading opportunities, perhaps shortening the lineouts to up the tempo of the game.

This Test series will be remembered for which side stamped their personality on it. It has been highly attritional and highly abrasive and, ultimately, if the Lions are to win they need to be able to engineer the game to go the way that they want.

Gatland’s bench selections do create a buffer to the very straightforward and physical nature of the starting team, and if every substitution is made astutely and for the right reason, the entire 23 will have an influence on the final outcome.

It is not the minutes in the game that matter, but the game within the minutes that will be the measure of who wins.

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Craig Lewis