Stormers 3 Lions 49
Auditions over with, rehearsals finished, it’s time for the big show.
While South Africa were fluffing their lines against the Bulls, the British and Irish Lions stuck firmly to script as they got through their evening’s work with minimal fuss.
In any case, this final warm-up was another match that would not live long in the memory – 49 unanswered points after the Stormers took a 3-0 lead ensuring it was another procession – but a week out from the all-important Test series you imagine even those involved in the heat of battle found their thoughts drifting towards seven days hence long before it was over.
In that sense, this was all about filling Saturday’s red jerseys one through 23 and the decisions that will have to be made between now and when Warren Gatland reveals his hand on Thursday.
To see Alun Wyn Jones come through his first action since dislocating his shoulder three weeks prior will have been heartening then, so too Robbie Henshaw’s maiden performance on South African soil after a hamstring injury had limited the involvement of Ireland’s most impressive performer from the year’s Six Nations.
Elsewhere, Henshaw’s Irish colleagues Jack Conan and Tadhg Beirne, as well as Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and Scottish scrum-half Ali Price, will have been among those who re-boarded the team buses feeling their chances of Test berths were enhanced over the course of the 80 minutes.
“We’ll go through everyone and look at the starting XV,” said Gatland.
“And also it’s important that we consider the impact the bench will have as well.
“That’s the next 48 or 72 hours where we’ll go through that process. It will be some robust debate, I would presume.
“I don’t go in with preconceived ideas. I let the media and the other rugby experts [think that way].
“They all have their own opinions and they are all very, very different from each other.
“I don’t have any issues with that. I try not to go in with any thoughts that this is potentially a Test side.
“I try to let that develop and the players to have that opportunity to put their hands up.
“Sometimes it’s about looking at the players and their numbers and the stats and sometimes it’s about having a gut feeling about certain players and combinations.”
And it’s those combinations that will be key to the thinking. Among them, the make-up of his loose-forwards trio, his half-backs, his centres and even his second-rows and back-three are still shrouded in intrigue.
It would be no surprise to see any of Conan, Beirne, Hamish Watson, Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes included in the back-row, while Gatland and Taulupe Faletau have put together a body of work together that predates any other of those candidates.
Henshaw’s return could yet mean a pairing with Elliot Daly, Chris Harris or Owen Farrell, the latter capable, perhaps even more natural, at ten should the coach seek to go down a different route than Dan Biggar.
In the back-field, Josh Adams and Anthony Watson appear to have cemented their spots, leaving just two places in the 23 for Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Louis Rees-Zammitt.
Price’s performance heaps more pressure on Conor Murray, the erstwhile tour captain who has now relinquished the role thanks to Wyn Jones’ surprise arrival in South Africa.
The game’s most capped player can’t have had too many bench cameos moDecre carefully scrutinised than this one but there was certainly no sign of a shoulder issue as he thundered into a few early tackles after his 52nd minute introduction in place of the again impressive Adam Beard.
“I thought he got a few shots on and defended well, a couple of touches in there as well,” added Gatland of the 35-year-old who will be targeting a tenth Lions Test cap this weekend.
“I know how hard he has worked over the last year or so, he was desperate to make the Lions.
“In 2017, he probably wasn’t at his best but has really been exceptional in the way he has prepared for this tour.
“It was a shame he picked up the injury but it’s great to have him back. We’ll have that discussion about whether there’s a role for him as a starter, bench player, or not involved next week.”
With Maro Itoje presumably ensconced in one of the lock positions, quite where Gatland lands on that decision will naturally have a knock-on effect for Ulster’s Iain Henderson as well as Beard and Jonny Hill.
With Gatland and his coaches bunkered down in the coming days to make those tough calls, all will soon be revealed.
Stormers: S Petersen; S Senatla, R Pretorius, D du Plessis, E van der Merwe; T Swiel, G Masimla; L Lyons, JJ Kotze, N Fouche; E van Rhyn (captain), JD Schickerling; N Xaba, J du Toit, E Roos.
Replacements: A van Reenen (for Swiel, 48); AH Venter (for Kotze, 48); T Bursey (for Zas, 61); M Theunissen (for Xaba, 61); D Bleuler (for Lyons, 65); J Basson (for Roos, 65); C Smit (for Du Plessis, 65); LM Mazibuko (for Fouche, 66).
British and Irish Lions: S Hogg (captain); D Van der Merwe, E Daly, R Henshaw, J Adams; M Smith, A Price; R Sutherland, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong; A Beard, J Hill; T Beirne, H Watson, J Conan.
Replacements: M Vunipola (for Sutherland, 48); J George (for Cowan-Dickie, 48); AW Jones (for Beard, 52); Z Fagerson (for Furlong, 52); C Harris (for Henshaw, 57); L Rees-Zammit (for Adams, 57); G Davies (for Price, 57); S Simmonds (for Conan, 57);
Referee: W Barnes (England)
Man of the Match: Luke Cowan-Dickie