IT wasn’t quite the walk in the park that the final score-line suggests, but the Lions had too much individual class against a tenacious Stormers outfit in the first half, and too much fitness for their opponents after the break, which saw them ultimately sign-off on the build-up section of this tour with another comfortable win.
Now we wait to see who is selected by head coach Warren Gatland and his coaching panel for next Saturday’s first Test. Seven Scots are in contention – Finn Russell isn’t expected to be fit until the second Test due to a minor Achilles tear– and they each had a final chance to push their case in this match.
Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe were both busy in the back three, but did they do enough? As Gatland has said on a number of occasions, the competition in the back-three is ferocious and will perhaps provide the greatest selection angst. Much will depend on how quickly Liam Williams comes through his return-to-play-protocols following the concussion he suffered on Wednesday. The Welshman is brilliant under the high ball and the aerial battle is going to be huge next weekend. Josh Adams (eight tries on tour so far) and Anthony Watson are also serious contenders, while Louis Rees-Zammitt gave a reminder of the threat he offers with his well taken breakaway try. It is conceivable that the two Scotland players will start, with Hogg as captain, and just as conceivable that they don’t make the match-day squad at all.
Chris Harris came off the bench for the final 22 minutes and looked typically composed in both attack and defence. His solidity and work-rate in the middle of the park, complemented by an attacking edge which wasn’t immediately obvious during the early part of his international career, means that the 30-year-old should be in the No13 jersey if the Test team is selected on form, alongside Robbie Henshaw at 12. but Gatland may be tempted to play Henshaw in his best position of outside-centre and hope that Owen Farrell can rediscover his mojo in the inside-centre slot.
Ali Price bustled effectively at scrum-half and is breathing right down Conor Murray’s neck, if he hasn’t already overtaken the Irishman, although Gatland did express some disappointment afterwards that a few of the Scot’s box-kicks were not as contestable as the Lions need them to be against the Springboks.
In the pack, the scrum was a mess which meant Rory Sutherland couldn’t assert his dominance, but he remains the best option at loose-head in the squad.
Zander Fagerson scored a try during his 26 minutes at the end and will always contribute plenty in the loose but usurping Tadhg Furlong was a huge ask and he hasn’t really had a chance to get close to doing that. The question is whether Kyle Sinckler‘s hot run of form, which was sparked by his initial exclusion from this tour, will see him claim the bench spot.
A lot of nonsense has been said and written about Hamish Watson being too small to take on the Springboks. He’s nine kilos lighter than Tom Curry, his chief rival for the number seven jersey, but that doesn’t really matter because it is about power not bulk. There is an argument for picking both Curry and Watson in the first Test if making sure the Lions look after their own ball is the priority ahead of trying to snaffle the opposition’s ball. That might leave the Lions light at line-out but would give the Springboks a few headaches elsewhere. If Gatland goes with only one loosie then Watson should get the nod having produced another impressive, all-action performance against the Stormers.
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It was a scrappy first quarter and the game was 17 minutes old before either line was really threatened, when a series of penalties conceded by the Stormers allowed the Lions to rumble their way into the red zone, and just as they did on Wednesday the tourists ended up going for the close-range tap, with a similar outcome – this time hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie was called for double-movement.
Instead, it was the Stormers who drew first blood when Tim Swiel kicked the points afterWatson was penalised chasing a turnover on the deck.
Finally, things clicked for the Lions just before the half-hour mark, when Tadhg Beirne pinched possession inside his own 22 and the ball was quickly transferred across the park forvan der Merwe to lead the breakout up the left touchline. The big winger got to about halfway, then Furlong thundered clear from the base of a ruck in the middle of the park, Adam Beard carried it on, the ball swung right toAdams, and then returned in-field for Beard to canter home unchallenged.
Lions stretched further ahead a few minutes later when the Lions worked a line-out maul in field and opened up the space for the irrepressible Cowan-Dickie to rampage in from 15 yards.
The tourists finished the half with a flourish with Price sparking things from scrum-half, van der Merwe carrying hard in heavy traffic, and Hogg delivering the scoring pass to Jonny Hill.
Marcus Smith‘s inside pass to Elliot Daly opened Stormers up and Jack Conan took full advantage with a 25-yard run-in for try number four after 10 minutes of the second half.
That prompted a bench clearance for the Lions and the game became a bit disjointed until a sweeping attack saw Beirne romp in unchallenged on the right, only for the score to be chalked off because of a forward pass from van der Merwe to Hogg earlier in the move.
One of the new faces on the park was Alun Wyn Jones, completing his remarkable Lazarus-style comeback just 21 days after dislocating his shoulder during the Lions’ pre-tour match against Japan at Murrayfield. The talismanic Welshman was clearly determined to prove his fitness and threw himself into a succession of thunderous challenges.
The Stormers were beginning to tyre and some more powerful forward play culminated inFagerson burrowing over, having replaced Furlong at tight-head prop 15 minutes earlier.
Smith was making his Lions debut and the 22-year-old stand-off made it clear that he hasn’t flown out to South Africa just to fill a gap in the team for this match, registering an assured and inventive all-round performance, goal-kicking immaculately, and polishing it off by launching an audacious attack from inside his own 22 with Waisale Serevi style goose-step, which sent Louis Rees-Zammitt in for try number six.
Try number seven came down the track just a few minutes later when Beirne, van der Merwe and Hogg combined up the left touchline for Sam Simmonds to finish off.
Meanwhile, a South Africa ‘A’ lost 17-14 to the Vodacom Bulls at Cape Town Stadium earlier this [Saturday] afternoon in their final hit-out before the start of the Test series. There was 12 changes to the side which defeated the Lions on Wednesday, and head Jacques Nienaber was philosophical about the performance and result, whilst clearly hoping that it will be the jolt his players need ahead of next Saturday.
“The result was not what we had hoped for, but a number of questions were answered, especially with regards to the readiness of individual players and their readiness for selection,” he said.
“I wanted the guys to stake a claim for selection for next week’s Test and unfortunately, not everyone did that, but I am not going to discuss individuals – any comments on them will be emotional, because we are hurting.
“As a team, the performance was not there, and I blame myself for that as well. The lack of dominance from our pack was not what we had expected. With the late confirmation of the game, we also did not do any analysis on the Bulls and that showed, while I did expect a better set-piece platform.
“The Bulls were good and desperate, and they showed how much they wanted it. The disappointing part is that they wanted it more as a team.”
Stormers: S Petersen; S Senatla (T Bursey 62), J de Jongh, D du Plessis (C Smit 66), E van der Merwe; T Swiel (A van Reenen 66), G Masimla; L Lyons (D Bleuler 66), J Kotze (A Venter 59), N Fouche (L Mazibuko 70), E van Rhyn, J Schickerling, N Xaba, J du Toit, E Roos (J Basson 66).
Lions: S Hogg; J Adams (L Rees-Zammit 58), E Daly, R Henshaw (C Harris 58), D van der Merwe; M Smith, A Price (G Davies 58); R Sutherland (M Vunipola 49), L Cowan-Dickie (J George 49), T Furlong (Z Fagerson 54), A Beard (A Jones 54), J Hill, T Beirne, H Watson, J Conan (S Simmonds 58).
Stormers: Pen: Swiel
Lions: Ties: Beard, Cowan-Dickie, Hill, Conan, Fagerson, Rees-Zammitt, Simmonds; Con: Smith 7.
Scoring sequence (Stormers first): 3-0; 3-5; 3-7; 3-12; 3-14; 3-19; 3-21 (h-t) 3-26; 3-28; 3-33; 3-35; 3-40; 3-42; 3-47; 3-49;