There are just two warm-up matches to go before the South Africa v Lions series kicks off. Time is running out for players to make their case for selection. Within a matter of days the time for fevered speculation will end. With that in mind, here’s some latest thoughts on the Test series’ chances of the Scottish forwards in the Lions’ squad.
Keys to a Test series’ squad place – fitness and match sharpness, scrummaging, work rate
There has been little sign that there were exactly three months between matches for Rory, between going off injured against France in March to starting against Japan in June. It’s likely that he’ll only get better as he gets more game time under his belt while there is a small risk for some of those who had a more hectic end to their season that they may start to fade the longer the tour goes on.
While the Lions’ scrum has yet to really fire the best moments so far have come with Sutherland at loosehead and Tadhg Furlong at tighthead. That pairing increasingly look like the most serious candidates to spearhead the Lions’ efforts to negate the weapon that is the Springbok scrum.
Rory has also shown up very well in the loose. With all the candidates having had a reasonable amount of game time the Scot averages 21.8 carries + tackle attempts per 80 minutes compared to 19.1 for Wyn Jones and 14.7 for Mako Vunipola. Rory has taken a big step up from the Six Nations where his stats in this area were the lowest of the three players.
As it stands – in pole position for a Test start
Keys to a Test series’ squad place – find his role, distribution, scrummage more solidly than Kyle Sinckler
Zander is in a tough place as both Test series’ props from 2017 have shown up well and it is going to be very hard to shift them. Tadhg Furlong looks every inch the player who started all three games against New Zealand four years ago. Kyle Sinckler has played like a man possessed – his tackles plus carries rate of 28.6 is comfortably the highest of any of the props on tour and he is one of only four Lions’ forwards to maintain a 100% tackle completion rate.
Zander seems to have struggled a wee bit to find his place in the Lions’ systems. This is a man who can bang out 10+ carries and/or 10+ tackles for Glasgow or Scotland with ease. Out on tour though he’s averaging 7.4 combined carries + tackle attempts per 80 minutes. As the youngest tight five forward it may be hard to push forward and demand to be at the centre of things the same way he is for club and country.
The scrummaging performance against the Sharks was hindered by the struggles Mako Vunipola was having on the other side of the Lions’ setpiece. Zander himself was penalised once – although that did seem a trifle harsh with the home side’s loosehead pulling down. His setpiece work has looked solid enough that the coaches wouldn’t worry unduly if he was called into Test action. That may only come in the event of an injury to the top two tightheads though.
As it stands – behind Furlong and Sinckler
Keys to a Test series’ squad place – pivot more to defensive workload, win the breakdown, low error count
Hamish has carried well when required but the duties here have been spread a little wider than they are for Scotland. That’s meant the balance of Watson’s work has shifted. He is much more likely to pass than when in the dark blue shirt and his tackle count is higher than his run count – the reverse was true for that stat when he played during the Six Nations.
That switch in emphasis has done nothing to diminish his effectiveness. He was simply outstanding against the Sigma Lions – but that’s the performance level Scotland fans have come to expect as the norm over the last few years. At the tackle and breakdown he had a straight up rip against the Sharks and was unfortunate not to win at least two further turnovers against the Sigma Lions when play went back for earlier penalty advantages.
Josh Navidi is another superb back row but realistically, with three-time Lion Justin Tipuric out injured, Hamish is battling Tom Curry to be the Lions’ openside. In a Test series that could well be decided by the finest margins, Watson’s freakishly low error count at the top level might swing the pendulum his way from the (relatively speaking) more high-risk Curry. So far in South Africa Hamish has one turnover lost (from 31 possessions), no penalties conceded and no tackles missed.
As it stands – ahead of Curry in the battle for the 7 shirt
Predicted forwards for the first Test:
2. Any one of 3
5. Lawes or Henderson
16. Any one of 3
19. Henderson or Lawes