Motivation is not in short supply within the British & Irish Lions camp as they seek a rip-roaring start to their 2021 South African adventure. Warren Gatland would clearly love to hit the ground running against the provincial Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday and at least two of his players will be even keener to repay their head coach’s faith.
Barely a week ago, Stuart Hogg was still coming to terms with not starting the Premiership final, which his club, Exeter, subsequently lost 40-38 against Harlequins. Now, suddenly, Scotland’s captain is basking in the glow of being asked to lead the Lions and follow in the distinguished tartan footsteps of, among others, Gavin Hastings and Finlay Calder.
His compatriot Finn Russell has also been given an immediate chance to orchestrate proceedings from No 10, a further sign of Gatland’s desire to encourage his game-breaking potential. Generate sufficient front-foot ball and he and full-back Hogg will be desperate to show they could play significant roles in the first Test against the Springboks in three weeks’ time.
The 10-12 partnership of Russell and Owen Farrell will be a particular source of interest, as will the amount of turbo-thrust generated up front where the Lions want to make a statement before a series when forward-based domination will be key. “I’ve no doubts whatsoever we’ve got enough fire-power to beat them,” said Jonny Hill, Hogg’s Exeter colleague, who is one of three new Lions in the starting XV.
“We’ve spoken about setting a marker at the set piece as forwards. It’s hugely important. There’s no secret as to the way the South Africans play the game. I play alongside several South African-born lads and I know how they’re made up. We know what’s coming.”
As a kid in rural Shropshire, Hill used to look up to hulking Lions legends such as Paul O’Connell, Martin Johnson and Alun Wyn Jones without ever guessing he might one day wear the famous red jersey himself. Now he and Maro Itoje, backed up by Courtney Lawes and Taulupe Faletau, will be expected to soar high and often in the lineout and send an early message to their giant Springbok counterparts that the touring pack can create a few dents of their own.
“They’re a side that has won huge games from their set piece so that’s a thing they’re going to target and we need to target as well,” Hill said. “It’ll be an interesting battle. When it comes down to it we need to take it out of the backs’ hands – when it gets to the nitty-gritty we want to give them as much space as possible and to do that we need to be dominant in the pack.”
As a clubmate of Hogg, the 27-year-old Hill knows exactly how keen the full-back is to put behind him the disappointment of being left on the bench for Exeter’s closing play-off games last month. “Hoggy was absolutely gutted not to be involved in the final. He’s not the sort of guy who would keep his powder dry for a Lions tour; he is one of the most professional players I have come across and him being selected as captain is a reflection of that.
“I know it means a lot to him. He is a guy that’s been on two previous tours and unfortunately he hasn’t got a Test cap yet. I know he’s trying to hunt that in the coming weeks. He’s got a really good opportunity this weekend, to lead us out, and we will be fully behind him.”
Hill, who reckons a hole in one at Exeter Golf and Country Club a year ago on Friday kick-started the happy sequence that has subsequently delivered England recognition and a fistful of medals over the past 12 months, is among four starting Lions debutants, alongside the Gloucester duo of Louis Rees-Zammit and Chris Harris and Edinburgh’s all-action Hamish Watson.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zander Fagerson, Sam Simmonds and Gareth Davies are also in line to make their first Lions appearances off the bench, with Wales’s Josh Adams the only survivor from the starting lineup for the 28-10 warm-up win over Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday, when Jones, the original tour captain, and Justin Tipuric were invalided out of the tour.
Anthony Watson (toe) and Dan Biggar (knee) are nursing slight knocks and will not be involved, but Gatland has been encouraged by his players’ collective sharpness in training. The priority now is to transfer it to a resounding highveld performance.
“The thing about international rugby is it’s either agony or ecstasy, there’s nothing in between,” he said. “For a lot of their players it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. They are going to be incredibly motivated.
“We understand there are not going to be any crowds but that’s not going to take away from their desire to want to be the first team to try and beat the Lions on tour.”
British & Irish Lions (v Lions) S Hogg (capt); L Rees-Zammit, C Harris, O Farrell, J Adams; F Russell, A Price; W Jones, J George, K Sinckler, M Itoje, J Hill, C Lawes, H Watson, T Faletau. Replacements L Cowan-Dickie, M Vunipola, Z Fagerson, I Henderson, S Simmonds, G Davies, B Aki, E Daly.