Lions Tour 2021: How Ali Price overcame nerves to win the biggest game of his career

Ali Price is fast emerging as one of the breakout stars of this Lions tour but the Scotland scrum-half admits he had to battle a bout of nerves ahead of his Test debut on Saturday.

South Africa's scrum-half Faf de Klerk watches as Lions opposite number Ali Price clears the ball.

The Glasgow Warriors man, who described it as the “biggest game of my career”, delivered a controlled performance against South Africa, keeping a steady head during a difficult first period for the tourists. He then helped spark the second-half revival before making way for Conor Murray after 63 minutes.

By that point the Lions had wrested control of the game from the Springboks, edging ahead 19-17. It was a lead they would retain until the end, with substitute Owen Farrell adding a late penalty to seal the 22-17 win.

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Outwardly, Price betrayed no signs of butterflies but he confessed to feeling it in the build-up as the importance of the game preyed on him.

Ali Price said he had never been as nervous as he was before the first Test against South Africa. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire

“Yes, it was pretty hard to take the occasion out of it, as much as I tried to. I haven’t been that nervous before a game for, well, forever,” he admitted. “I knew it was the biggest game of my career and until I got my first pass in or first involvement I was pretty nervous.

“But once I got myself into the game I was delighted with the result and how it all worked out. To get in a Lions squad is special but to be a Test Lion is the cherry on top, I guess. It was a special day for myself and my family back home.

“I wanted to do myself justice and put in a performance I was proud of. I said last week my focus going into the Stormers game was trying to execute my basics well. They are the important things going into a Test match. I felt my basics were pretty good on Saturday and was delighted to be on the end of a positive result as well.”

Few would have predicted Price would be the starting Test scrum-half after Murray had been appointed Lions tour captain on the night of the farewell match against Japan in Edinburgh exactly one month ago. The Irishman was given the role after Alun Wyn Jones sustained a shoulder injury at Murrayfield which looked to have ended his tour before it had begun. The almost miraculous return of Jones saw him reclaim the captaincy from Murray who then found himself battling with Price and Gareth Davies for the No 9 jersey.

Ali Price, right, joins Duhan van der Merwe, centre, in supporting Robbie Henshaw during the British and Irish Lions' win in Cape Town. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

The Munster scrum-half started all three Tests on the 2017 tour of New Zealand but a lukewarm performance in the defeat against South Africa A opened the door for Price, who seized his chance with a dynamic performance against the Stormers.

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It was enough to convince Warren Gatland and the Scot was given the nod for the first Test. While rivals for the same position, Price had nothing but praise for the magnanimity shown by Murray and Davies.

“When the team got announced last week before the first Test, Conor was the first to come and say ‘well done, mate’,” said Price. “When we got on the bus Gareth was the same, shook my hand and said ‘well done’.

“We’re helping each other. Conor’s got that experience and when I came in at half-time he was first there saying you’ve gone well. That gives you so much confidence when you hear that from a guy who has been there, and you know he was on the last Lions tour, and that’s all good to hear from my point of view.

“It’s been really enjoyable and we’ve all fed off each other. At the same time, it’s friendly and we’re going for the same shirt. Once that’s been decided, we’re all backing the guy that’s going out there and playing.”

Price expects South Africa to come back harder and stronger in the second Test but also backs the Lions to improve. The tourists look the fitter side - hardly surprising given the Springboks’ Covid problems and lack of games - and the hope is that the game will be more open.

“We can expect the Springboks to improve and put in a better performance this week but then we have plenty of growth in us as well,” said Price. “There was not much attacking rugby in the game in terms of us getting into our shape and going through the phases. I think that is an area for improvement.

“We back our conditioning and how we want to impose ourselves on teams. The start of the second half was going to be important to gain the momentum in the match.”

Price was at the centre of the revival when his kick deep into South African territory sparked confusion between Willie le Roux and Kwagga Smith. As the two Boks waited for the other to gather it was all the invitation the Lions needed. Smith was quickly engulfed and penalised for failing to release and in that moment, the pendulum swing decisively towards the Lions.

“We speak about, maybe to the untrained eye, the unseen things,” added Price. “The effort, the things that don’t require any talent. If you look at some of the kick-chase intensity for example. That came from the start of the second half, we cleared, got a scrum just after halfway and the momentum shift was massive.

“We were able to build on that and we were on the front foot and winning the 50-50 battles and drawing penalties from the South Africans and were able to put a bit of scoreboard pressure on them and we got tighter and managed to continue that through the whole 80 minutes which got us in front and got us the win in the end.”

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