Stuart Hogg faces fitness test as Covid casts shadow over Lions tour
The Scotland captain, who is named among the replacements for the game at Emirates Airline Park, is nursing a dead leg.
Hogg skippered the Lions to a 56-14 victory over the Sigma Lions in the tour opener in Joburg on Saturday but the tourists will err on the side of caution in terms of the Sharks game.
“Hogg is carrying a little bit of dead leg so we’ll probably make a decision on that in the morning to see how he holds up,” said Steve Tandy, the Lions defence coach.
Covid continues to cast a shadow over the tour, and the news that Saturday’s match against the Bulls in Pretoria has been postponed is a major setback.
The Lions have not given up hope of rescheduling the fixture or finding alternative opponents – series regulations make provision for additional midweek matches to be added on – but it’s hard to see where the game could be fitted in.
Perhaps of greater concern is the spread of Coronavirus in the Springboks camp. Lock forward Lood de Jager tested positive on Monday, and now four additional players - second row Marvin Orie, centre Frans Steyn, stand-off Handre Pollard and prop Frans Malherbe - have returned positive tests along with six members of the management team, including head coach Jacques Nienaber, and one masseuse.
South Africa’s match against Georgia on Friday looks set to be called off amid growing concern about the first Test against the Lions which is scheduled for two weeks on Saturday.
The delta variant is hitting South Africa hard and, with health services stretched to breaking point, rugby will seem like a minor concern for many as a third wave of infections courses through a largely unvaccinated population.
Doubts will now resurface over the wisdom of pressing ahead with the tour when the host nation is battling against a spiralling crisis that has resulted in a hard lockdown which includes a curfew, alcohol ban, travel restrictions and school closures.
Against this backdrop the Lions continue to prepare for a Test series against the world champions. Tandy says the players remain focused on the job in hand as they get ready to face the Sharks following victories over Japan in the send-off game in Edinburgh and the Sigma Lions.
“There's a lot of speculation around but it hasn’t affected the mood in the camp,” said the coach. “The boys have trained this morning and everyone is just geared up for Wednesday night.
“We’re just focused on getting better, improving and building on the last couple of performances. There are a couple of more people making their debuts for the Lions on Wednesday so it’s exciting times and we’re really just focusing on ourselves.”
This tour is shorter than previous ones, with just five scheduled matches before the Test series. The loss of the Bulls game reduces that number to four and limits the opportunities players have to put their hands up for Test selection. But Tandy is pragmatic enough to know that flexibility is a prerequisite of this tour.
“We have to adapt and what will be will be,” he said. “We’re seeing the boys training, we’d like to think everyone would have had a chance to put his name in the hat for the Test series, we watch them every day. I think people can make it more difficult than it is.
“The competition is already going to be difficult, because the standard in training and in games is huge. I don’t think it will make too much of a difference.”
Speaking before confirmation that the Bulls game had been called off, the coach said he was unsure how the Lions would tailor their training to accommodate a potential postponement, with a practice match one possibility.
“I think we’ll weigh up whether we maybe need to give the boys an extra day off or whether we feel we need that internal match or maybe a heavier-loaded contact day,” said Tandy.
“As coaches we talk about it, but I think through Covid what you learn [is] you have to adapt. You can have the best-laid plans, but things move really quickly. It’s just being prepared for whatever comes our way at whatever time.
"We may give an extra day off, maybe train a little bit harder on the Friday.”
Tandy expects a tougher game against the Sharks than the tourists got at the weekend but he dismissed suggestions that the Lions had not been tested thus far.
“I think the Japanese game put us under real duress, if I’m honest,” he said. “The way they played was outstanding and I think we learned a lot from that game considering we’d only been together for two weeks.
“The Sharks have got a young team and, speaking from a defensive point of view, they play a little bit more expansively. They’ve got lively players in the back three, with a ball-carrying No 8, so we know there’s real ambition in the way the Sharks want to play so we’ll have to move up a level.
“Wednesday is another chance for people to put forward their case to play [in the Tests]. The training standard is outstanding, there is competition among the players but we’re still making sure we’re all on the same page. It’s really, really open for those Test spots.”
British and Irish Lions (v the Sharks, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg, Wednesday, 6pm BST):
L Williams (Scarlets, Wales); A Watson (Bath Rugby, England), E Daly (Saracens, England), B Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), D van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); D Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), G Davies (Scarlets, Wales); M Vunipola (Saracens, England), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Z Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), I Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland, capt), A Beard (Ospreys, Wales), J Navidi (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), T Curry (Sale Sharks, England), S Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets, Wales), R Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), T Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), T Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), J Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), C Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland), S Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland), C Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland).
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