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first test At last the starters are about to end the main course of the Lions tour is in sight


Ireland's Tadhg Furlong has caught the eye on the Lions tour so far

Ireland's Tadhg Furlong has caught the eye on the Lions tour so far

Ireland's Tadhg Furlong has caught the eye on the Lions tour so far

At last we get to the meat of what has been the craziest Lions tour ever – the first Test against South Africa in Cape Town next Saturday.

In glorious technicolour hindsight, this tour should never have gone ahead.

Watching Australia host France in internationals in Brisbane and Melbourne last week, in front of packed stadiums, the obvious thing to do a few months ago was bring the 2025 Lions tour to Australia forward four years and let South Africa have their turn at hosting in 2025 when things will, surely, have settled down.

Instead, we have matches called off mid-tour, the South African coach condemned to his hotel bedroom in isolation, and it seems all the Tests will now be played in Cape Town as the rates of coronavirus rocket around the rest of South Africa.

That’s not a Lions tour as I knew it and lapped up in New Zealand in 1993. You tour the country, play in different stadiums, meet so many different people.


The British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

I didn’t play in any Test in 1993, but I’d rather savour the memories of that tour than win a cap on this one.

We went to a little place called Hawke’s Bay to play the locals. It was described to me as the biggest day in the town’s history at the time. And I remain in touch with a lad I met down there. He says there has still been nothing like that afternoon in the town 28 years ago.

For half of this travelling party, this will be their first and last Lions tour all in one. They’ll never get another shot at it, and they are entitled to feel cheated as what is happening now is not a Lions tour.

And it is not just on the South African side that things are strange. Alun Wyn Jones was named Lions captain but he got injured in the opening game and was ruled out, with Conor Murray given the armband in his absence. Then Jones makes a stunning recovery from a dislocated shoulder and returns.

It all smacks to me of coach Warren Gatland wanting to rely on his old Welsh spine.

Then there are the four hookers. Yes, the Lions party has four players for one specialist position! Let me explain and utter an ‘I told you so’ too.

In these pages in January, I argued that Ronan Kelleher should be Ireland’s No 1 hooker for the Six Nations – and that if he was, he had a fair old chance of playing for the Lions, too. Instead, Rob Herring got the call for the national team.

In the initial squad, Gatland chose three hookers, Ken Owens of Wales and Englishmen Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

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The latter pair were not available for the two-week training camp on Jersey because of their involvement in the final stages of the English Premiership – so Kelleher was called up.

By all accounts, he impressed everybody there – and it was with a heavy heart, on the part of the coaching staff, that Kelleher did not travel to South Africa.

Now he has been called up. Why? Did Kelleher do more in the training camp than the chosen ones have done in training? If so, it is a very poor reflection on the original selection meeting at which, let me remind you again, no Irishman was present.

At the end of all that, how many Irishmen will start the first Test in six days’ time? I say four – Rob Henshaw and Bundee Aki at centre, Murray at scrum-half and Tadhg Furlong at prop.

Tadhg Beirne has a strong shot at starting, too, but I suspect he will begin the Test on the bench, while Iain Henderson and Jack Conan (inset) will be scrapping for subs’ roles but might miss out.

This is going to be a massively physical Test match. I couldn’t believe the stat trotted out by ex-England international Will Greenwood during commentary on the South Africa ‘A’ match last Wednesday, when he said that in their three winning World Cup finals (1995, 2007 and 2019), South Africa didn’t concede a try. Incredible, but true!

The Springboks pride themselves on solid defence and massive physicality. The Lions won’t beat their hosts by bashing into them, they will beat them by exploiting space. First, the Lions must find that space, then they must use it.

I noted, too, that South Africa ‘A’ ran out of steam in the second-half of that match. The full Springboks team played a warm-up match against Georgia last week. It was their first game since winning the World Cup against England in November 2019.

There has to be a suspicion that if the Lions can stay with South Africa, they can get the better of them in the last 15 minutes, when the home team, surely, cannot be match fit.

But what the Lions cannot do is give the world champions the sort of easy first-half lead that their ‘A’ team was able to build up last Wednesday.

If the Lions are three points behind going into the last 10 minutes next Saturday, they’ve a great chance of a famous win. If they are 10 points behind, then forget it.

The first Test sets the tone for a tour. The Lions in South Africa in 1997 won the series because they won the first Test and, thus, put the home team on the back foot. Conversely, the Lions of 2005 in New Zealand never recovered from skipper Brian O’Driscoll being taken out of it in the first minute of that series.

This is the game in which this 2021 pride of Lions can make a statement – chaos and all.

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