The match against South Africa A will serve as a test of scrumhalf Conor Murray’s ability to rally the British & Irish Lions pack for a performance that makes the world champions sit up and take notice.
The Lions captain (at least pending Alun Wyn Jones’ reported return) has been named to his first start of the tour, in a powerful lineup that doesn’t appear to be too far off Warren Gatland’s strongest available selection.
Power has been less evident from the Lions than alacrity in the opening matches, which have doubled as a bonanza for the visiting party’s outside backs. The tourists have averaged almost 10 tries per match in three wins over the Joburg Lions and Sharks, and Scotland mega wing Duhan van der Merwe and rapid Wales flyer Josh Adams have led a wide corps responsible for 17 of those touchdowns.
The Sharks effectively fielded a third-string team when they replaced the Bulls as the Lions’ opponents in match three and the tourists jogged in 11 tries.
This match also marked the end to a surprising lack of points production from the touring Lions’ pack. Compact flank Hamish Watson’s try in the opener at Ellis Park represented the only five-pointer for the heavy-breathers until Jamie George, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan and Tom Curry combined for six tries to bring the wings back down to earth.
While the technical aspects of the Lions’ performances have been impressive, albeit against suspect opposition, there hasn’t been much from the forwards that would have had Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit trading nervous glances.
There has been no sighting of an indomitable ball-carrier, a bone-crunching hitman or an inescapable ball hawk among the touring pack while the breakdown has looked vulnerable at times, and if the Lions do possess an inexorable scrum and lineout drive, they have disguised it with an efficiency that would impress the World War II brains trust behind Operation Bodyguard.
It remains to be seen how far the world champions are from their 2019 form, and Murray will view Wednesday’s match as a chance to harness his pack and extract an answer to this question from the 18 gold medallists in the SA A team.
Key to that objective is Murray’s own contribution at scrumhalf, a position that has been represented by adequate, rather than commanding, performances from Ali Price and Gareth Davies thus far.
Murray’s mission begins with using his boot to tilt the field for his pack to run downhill to the ball, continues with manning up in defence to reduce the load on his forwards and ends with organising the heavies for offensive manoeuvres that take control of the gainline.
Success in these facets will put Maro Itoje and Josh Navidi over the ball early so that Tom Curry and Toby Faletau can get over the gainline quickly, all of which will be impossible if the Lions scrum doesn’t have teeth and the tourists’ find no foothold to overwhelm the Bok maul defence. Kyle Sinckler must erase whatever memory he has of the World Cup final to negate Bok loosehead Steven Kitshoff at the engagement, and hooker Ken Owens will be reliant on clean takes from Itoje and Henderson to set up the drive.
A Lions bench loaded with six forwards will also have an opportunity to negate the secret to South Africa’s success in Japan as the likes of Mako Vunipola, Tadhg Berne and Sam Simmonds prepare to take on an imposing Bomb Squad which features the carnivorous Coenie Oosthuizen, Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch and Rynhardt Elstadt.
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