Fraser Brown: I’m shocked Ali Price is not starting for the Lions - he was one of the best players in the first Test
There are only three changes to the starting XV, with Chris Harris, Conor Murray and Mako Vunipola coming in for Elliot Daly, Ali Price and Rory Sutherland respectively, who all drop to the bench.
There is always debate on Lions teams and this week is no different. There were a number of players from the first Test who it would have been easy to argue either way about their involvement on Saturday but there was one player who I was certain would be lining up in the starting team again this week and that was Ali Price at 9.
I’m a Scot, a friend and a teammate of Ali’s, but even putting all of that to one side I was shocked when I saw the team. Ali was one of the best players on the pitch in the first Test and a number of coaches and players I’ve spoken to share that view as do many South Africans. When the likes of former Springboks captain John Smit, whose knowledge of winning Test match rugby far exceeds my own, and other South African pundits talk of how key Ali was in controlling the game for the Lions and shutting out the Springboks then you get an idea of how good his performance was.
Not only has his game management been excellent, his box-kicking has been consistent all tour and if and when the game breaks up and there are opportunities to attack, then he’s a brilliant threat from the base. He will of course have a significant role to play later in the game from the bench as will the other subs and like last week, there is a lot of firepower waiting to come on to raise the tempo and exploit tiring bodies in the final quarter.
I’m not Warren Gatland and it’s easy for me to sit here and say what I’d do different without any of the pressure, but I’d be feeling a lot more confident about a 2-0 Lions lead on Saturday night with Price at 9.
The inclusion of Chris Harris at 13 is less surprising.
There had to be a change in the centres because it just didn’t work last week. I thought Elliot Daly was a strange choice at 13 in the first Test and I saw a stat which said that after 65 or 70 minutes Daly and Lukhanyo Am, the two 13s, had passed the ball only twice between them. Not a surprising stat for Am. South Africa utilise him in a completely different way but for the Lions, I thought this was astonishing.
There wasn’t a lot of attacking rugby in the first Test but when you’ve got talent like Duhan van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson outside of the 13 it’s really pretty criminal to not give them time on the ball.
Harris might not be known for his distribution, but he works bloody hard in that area and he’s brilliant defensively. Chris has worked hard on his distribution and has that ability to shift the ball wide but is also a very good direct option particularly from set piece.
One area the Springboks were really poor in last week was defensive lineouts, which surprised me. They seemed to have a policy to give the Lions easy ball at the front which they took and mauled with to great effect. The one time they managed to pressure the Lions throw, South Africa managed to disrupt and, from then on, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie looked really nervy.
Cowan-Dickie just looked very vulnerable in there and I’m surprised he’s starting again this week. He’s been brilliant around the pitch but bearing in mind how defensively it seems the Lions have gone you’d have thought the thing that they wanted to nail down was the nuts and bolts - the scrum, the lineout and their kicking game. I thought Ken Owens or even Jamie George might have come in as a starting hooker.
The one change in the pack is Vunipola in for Sutherland. I thought Mako played well when he came on at loosehead last week. The big criticism of him in the past has been his scrummaging but he was rock solid against what many would say were the stronger South African front row who all came on at half-time.
The scrum was strong and stable and Mako was brilliant around the pitch.
I didn’t think Sutherland had a bad game; he was pretty solid without being a stand-out. I think Mako came on and raised the intensity level. It’s probably more of a measure of how well Mako did when he came on rather than Suz playing particularly badly.
The other change from a Scottish point of view is Hamish Watson losing his place on the bench and I have to say it is not a huge surprise. I think there was an argument for including him and an argument for not. If you look at the quality of the options in that back row, I think everyone has to play exceptionally well to keep their place.
Mish came on in the first Test and I thought he was quite fortunate with the penalty he gave away - it was probably a yellow card offence. Not that that has necessarily gone against him but he didn’t have that much of an impact when he came on.
We know he’s a great ball carrier but again I thought South Africa marshalled him pretty well.
I want a Lions series win, but I’d love it to go to a third Test. If they Boks are able to lift their game and more importantly, if they’re able to maintain their physicality and discipline from the first half of the first Test over a full 80 minutes then I think they might just sneak it on Saturday. Again, it will be tight but South Africa by a score.
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