Martin Hannan: Warren Gatland’s Welsh contingent may be step backward but I pick Lions win

It just cannot come quick enough. Forget all this Olympics stuff and let’s get to 5pm on Saturday and the rugby match of the decade. The Third Test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in Cape Town will be simply unmissable.

Of course it might all go pear-shaped for one or other team, and a clear victor could emerge long before the clock goes red on 80 minutes, but I am pretty certain this will be a very close battle in which sheer stamina might determine the winner.       

Two weeks ago before the First Test I wrote: “For what it’s worth I am betting on the Lions to win, but will not be surprised if the Boks triumph in the Second Test to set up the clash of the ages.”

I also wrote last week “there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Springbok” and added “if there’s any international side which can bounce back from defeat it’s South Africa.”

I concluded: “That bouncebackability and the real possibility of a series loss might just inspire South Africa to new heights. I would not be surprised if the Lions again use their superior bench to good effect, and again it will be a tight game, but the World Champions might just have the edge this time, and what a Third Test that would set up.”

Not boasting or anything – okay, I am because I don’t usually tip winners – but my bookmaker will testify that I have called the results of the first two tests correctly, though I certainly got it wrong about how the Second Test was going to play out. It was not the Lions who used their replacements to good effect, but South Africa and they duly ran out length-of-street winners in the second half.

The Lions had no flair, no players capable of making a damaging break and creativity was pretty well non-existent, especially in that dreadful second half.  

Following the team announcements yesterday, the big question for the Lions is this: by reverting to type and summoning his beloved Welshmen, has head coach Warren Gatland taken one step forward or two backwards? I have no problem with Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Ken Owens and Wyn Jones as they are all fine players, but it does smack of Gatland panicking a bit and bringing in men he knows of old.

Stuart Hogg did not play well by his high standards on Saturday, but did he really deserve to be dropped right out of the 23? It beats me how Dan Biggar kept his place after making just three clear passes in the whole game and kicking possession away, but then the whole back line on Saturday rarely made any penetration against an enormous Springbok defence and they all suffered under the high ball.                

I also fail to understand why Gatland has not given himself any real options in the back row where he retains all three players from Saturday when none of them were outstanding. Dropping Hamish Watson completely now looks a bit dubious, and Tadgh Beirne is also very unlucky to miss out on the bench at least.

With another Welshman, Adam Beard, on the bench, at last there will be the option to use his height if the line-out stutters, and the scrummaging will need to improve all round with options off the bench so it was good that Kyle Sinckler’s appearance before the beaks saw him allowed to play.   

The enigma that is Finn Russell will almost certainly come on earlier than later, but will it be with Ali Price or Connor Murray? It makes no sense to play Russell-Murray as the Scot won’t get the speed of delivery he needs. 

In truth, though, it’s not the personnel that Gatland needed to change, it is the tactics. South Africa learned big time from the First Test and changed their approach to kick the Lions into defence and defeat, and the Lions’ problem was that they tried to emulate the Boks and simply couldn’t.  

The Boks also ‘played’ the referee better and knew how much Ben O’Keeffe would allow and what he would penalise. The Lions did not and paid the price. 

So who do I think will win and why? The most impactful team changes may not be those made by Gatland but by the medical staff of the Springboks. They had no choice but to stand down Faf de Klerk and Peter-Steph du Toit and those men are world class match-winners – a huge loss. That they have had to switch Franco Mostert from lock to flanker should be a worrying sign for Springbok fans.

In a tour when refereeing has been under scrutiny as never before, the fact that the man in the middle on Saturday is Mathieu Raynal of France might also be a determining factor. The Lions all know Raynal who will stand for no time-wasting nonsense and that will not favour the Boks.

If Gatland can change his tactics and insist on the Lions running with ball in hand, they will win. If not, South Africa will triumph. I go for the Lions.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992