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British and Irish Lions 2021: Lessons learned from Test dress rehearsal against South Africa A

Tom Curry made 36 metres with ball in hand, only Taulupe Faletau made more among the Lions pack

The British and Irish Lions may have suffered their first defeat of the 2021 tour, but head coach Warren Gatland says his players are in “bullish” mood.

The New Zealander claims his team is “confident that we can handle whatever they throw at us going forward”.

But is it a false confidence? Or can the Lions really take some hope from defeat? Here is a look at what we learned from the Test dress rehearsal.

South Africa are still world champions

Much has been said about the fact that South Africa have only played one Test – against Georgia on 2 July – since winning the World Cup in November 2019.

There were also questions over how the team would cope after more than 20 positive Covid-19 cases in camp, with captain Siya Kolisi still isolating, and the whole squad having recently spent six days confined to their hotel rooms.

But the so-called A team – which included seven of the side that started the World Cup final – were exactly as any Springbok outfit is expected to be.

South Africa stifled the Lions with their physicality, crowding the visitors with a fierce defence.

It took sheer brute force from Wyn Jones to get the Lions over for their only try – and the prop took a shoulder knock in the process.

Lions captain Conor Murray felt they dealt with the challenge in the end, saying: “We knew the type of defence the Boks were going to bring tonight.

“It’s one thing saying it but it’s different dealing with it in live situations. We learned on the run this evening and we fixed it out there.”

Watson and Curry are neck and neck in the Test race

Hamish Watson
Hamish Watson was named 2021 Six Nations player of the championship

There is now just one warm-up game left before the first Test on 24 July and Tom Curry more than took his opportunity to claim the seven jersey.

He faces stiff competition in Scotland’s Hamish Watson, who impressed in the opening games.

Curry made a team-high 11 tackles against South Africa A, as well as eight carries and a turnover, leaving Gatland in a tricky position.

“Tom Curry was great tonight but there is no doubt Hamish Watson has had a great tour as well,” the head coach said.

“That is going to be a tough selection call.”

Gatland went on to say there would be “a lot” of difficult selection decisions, naming the back three and front row as particularly competitive areas.

He added that even returning captain Alun Wyn Jones’ place in the starting XV was not a formality, a point emphasised by Maro Itoje’s warrior-like performance in the second row.

Do not kick to Kolbe

Cheslin Kolbe
Cheslin Kolbe has scored eight tries in 14 Tests for South Africa

It is a lesson many have already learned, but Elliot Daly momentarily forgot.

The England back, who has impressed at centre on the tour so far, sent a kick Cheslin Kolbe’s way and the World Cup star gleefully took advantage.

The wing slipped through the tightest of gaps between Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit and fed the ball to captain Lukhanyo Am for a try.

Gatland said “on reflection” he would have preferred a box-kick, adding: “There are a few things we need to brush up on in terms of inaccuracy”.

Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus said South Africa will play another warm-up match against Bulls on Saturday. Hopefully the provincial side will learn from the Lions’ mistakes.

The Lions’ bench brings the heat

Although South Africa A had a formidable starting line-up, the Lions had the upper hand on the bench where Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola and Zander Fagerson formed a front row that would make most Test teams tremble.

Gatland began to use his replacement forwards after half-time and, although they could not close the gap, the Lions managed to keep the Springboks scoreless for the second 40.

“In the game at the moment having guys come off the bench and make a difference is incredibly important,” Gatland said.

“Players who can come off the bench and give you energy, experience and the ability to be able to change a game.”

Gatland will not be a water boy

Rassie Erasmus
South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus filled in as waterboy for the South Africa A side

With Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber isolating, Erasmus took charge of the side dressed as a water boy on the touchline.

It was an approach Gatland described as “a little bit interesting”, before affirming that he would not be joining Erasmus in the thick of the action.

“You won’t see me doing that,” he said.

“Different strokes for different folks. It’s a bit strange the director of rugby of South Africa also being a waterboy.”

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