SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: I fear the dazzling feet of Cheslin Kolbe Lions wing will expose Duhan van der Merwe
Warren Gatland is a coach who never evades the hard calls and he has maintained that reputation with this exciting, daring lineup of Lions.
You may be baffled and even radically disagree with some of the selections, but Warren is always self-supporting.
He has chosen without fear or favor to such an extent that reigning Six Nations champion Wales, who nearly defeated the Springboks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final with Gatland in the lead, has just three starters.
Warren Gatland has chosen an exciting and daring line-up for the Lions first Test match first
However, I fear that Cheslin Kolbe (left) will expose Scottish wing Duhan van der Merwe (right)
As I mentioned over the weekend, I’ve never seen so many options available and so few injuries on a Lions tour prior to a first test, and the added complication was that the warm-up games – with the exception of South Africa A which felt like a fourth Test – were woefully inadequate.
But only four players who started against South Africa A, a game the Lions should have won, will start on Saturday.
Gatland and his coaching team clearly saw things they didn’t like that night. Working on a slow pass from Conor Murray and a poor trap play, the lack of pace between the backs has lingered in the memory and only Anthony Watson has been retained as the starter from that back division.
The only roster that really surprises me is the omission of the try machine Josh Adams, with Duhan van der Merwe being preferred. To some extent I get it – Van der Merwe is a big, fast unit and hard to stop.
But for me he’s not a deadly natural tryscorer like Adams and he’s not as strong defensively. He will be up against Cheslin Kolbe and some experts are suggesting that Kolbe may not like taking on Van der Merwe.
I was really surprised to see the omission of try machine Josh Adams (above) from the squad
They clearly haven’t seen the pocket rocket’s Boks wing stack on opponents at twice its size. He likes the physical challenge and on offense his dazzling feet fail to expose the Scottish wing.
As for the other selections, there were so many close calls.
Gatland signaled from the start that he would use Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne as blindside flankers and both have enjoyed decent playing time.
Marginally, I went with Beirne to start, but there’s also a logic that starts with the grand, confrontational Lawes, with the option to use the slimmer Beirne when the bodies are tiring.
Then Biggar or Owen Farrell at 10? I went with Farrell because of his goals kicks in the big game and suspicion that his full A game would return in the second half against South Africa A but Biggar is the No 10 form of the Six Nations and has been a great unsung tourist in 2017. Gatland is fortunate to have both.
Whore? Any of the three would have done a great job, but there’s no denying that Luke Cowan-Dickie has been pulling his socks off lately and was on fire against the Stormers on Saturday.
He brings a huge amount to the table – a nose for attempts, deadly chop tackling, turnover skills to match any flanker and excellent lineout throwing.
But can he handle Boks’ scrum power? That should be his first job and that’s the only aspect of his game that hasn’t really been tested at this elite level.
Luke Cowan-Dickie is in great shape, but will be tested by the Boks’ scrummaging power
Likewise, while the opposition was limited, Ali Price looked more lively as No. 9 and Murray’s slow serve and off-night kick against South Africa A, probably that argument…for now.
Price’s selection indicates that the Lions will soon be playing rugby and I welcome that.
Tom Curry or Hamish Watson at openside? If you flip a coin, you both get a lot of action. Jack Conan or Taulupe Faletau at No. 8. Tossing a coin. Stuart Hogg or Liam Williams as fullback? Tossing a coin.
I went with Hogg as I felt some spunk on Saturday after the annoyance of his Covid-induced isolation in Johannesburg and the disappointment that he had been dropped by Exeter for the Premiership semi-finals and finals. The Scotland captain is a very hungry player with a point to prove as he makes his Lions Test debut on his third Tour.
The selection I dared not hope for was Elliot Daly, whose claim to play center for England that I have been advocating for five or six years. As a former outdoor center I always thought he was best suited there – great pace on the outer arc, good hands and a really good kick game. And 13 is where he always performed best for Wasps.
I was delighted to see Elliot Daly’s roster at number 13 where he played best for Wasps
Selection is a complicated, integrated process. Firstly, Scotland’s Chris Harris played well – great on defense, lively on offense – while Bundee Aki looked strong and aggressive, although it was always him or Robbie Henshaw.
But then maybe the choice for scrum half is a factor.
Price getting the nod to Murray points me to a faster-paced game. That decision cannot be separated from the thinking process about who plays the leading role.