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The Lions to unleash their own ‘Bomb Squad’

Alex Shaw

If there were any British & Irish Lions fans keen to see the touring side fight fire with fire against the Springboks, they are set to be delighted on Saturday with the debut of the Lions’ very own ‘Bomb Squad’.

A phrase coined at the 2019 Rugby World Cup to describe the physicality and impact of the Springbok bench forwards, it seems as if the Lions have taken a leaf out of their rivals’ book and packed a bench that is both physical and dynamic in the hopes it will be enough to clinch the currently tied series in their favour.

Up front, Wyn Jones and Ken Owens have been called up into the front row alongside Tadgh Furlong, leaving the trio of Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler to ride the pine. That is some serious ball-carrying and ball-playing ability for the Lions and Warren Gatland to call upon. If the Lions are trailing or need to change up the game plan, you would be hard pressed to find a more appealing three front rows to spring from the bench than the English trio.

The starting back row of Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Jack Conan is untouched, but waiting in the wings is one Sam Simmonds, who will be chomping at the bit to be unleashed from the wilderness of the tour games. He may not be a thumper, but he is dynamic in a way that no other player in that Lions squad is and, just like the bench front rowers, is a significant contrast to the players starting in his position.

Wyn Jones
Wyn Jones has recovered from a shoulder injury to bring solidity to the Lions front row (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Adam Beard offers a physical option and excellent maul defender to turn to should either of Maro Itoje or Alun Wyn Jones need to leave the field and, although not necessarily as dynamic as the other bench forward options, he brings some valuable size and set-piece strength to a group that is built to up the tempo rather than bolster the set-piece.

OK, it’s not a ‘Bomb Squad’ in the truest of senses. It’s not six apparently genetically-modified behemoths to unleash upon a beleaguered and tiring team, but it’s a ‘Bomb Squad’ with a twist.

As a group, it promises attack and tempo and an ability to stress a defence outside of the kicking game that so dominates international rugby at present. Crucially, it promises change from the starting pack, another dimension if you want, something that was sorely missing when the Lions had to chase the game in the second Test.

A maverick. A showman. A magician. There is no shortage of descriptives for the Scotsman and the fans who winced at Dan Biggar’s tally of three total passes in the second Test will be buoyed to see a player of Russell’s ability waiting to be deployed.

If the Boks are the heavy sluggers, ready to knock out anyone who comes into range and keeps their hands low, then the Lions are going to dance with you. Make no mistake, though, that is a bench that packs a punch that could put South Africa on the canvas.

It wasn’t just the forwards that caught the eye on the Lions bench either, as one Finn Russell made his way into the Test 23 for the first time.

A maverick. A showman. A magician. There is no shortage of descriptives for the Scotsman and the fans who winced at Dan Biggar’s tally of three total passes in the second Test will be buoyed to see a player of Russell’s ability waiting to be deployed. His inclusion has come at the expense of Lions veteran Owen Farrell and although it is Biggar who has the biggest chance to influence the outcome of the game as a starter, it is a decision that could have a hugely significant bearing on the final result.

Duhan van der Merwe
Duhan van der Merwe has received an unexpected reprieve after an indifferent second Test (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Yes, the fact the starting fly-half only made three passes in the second Test is a hard to one to digest. Even with an intelligent kicking game and a desire to play the game in the right areas of the pitch, rather than with the ball in hand, to make just three is still staggering. Staggering but not without reason.

To limit Biggar in the passing game and phase play so much speaks to not only a desire to dominate territory through a precise kicking game, but also to avoid playing into the teeth of the Springbok blitz defence. If you don’t put width on the ball, you don’t come face to face with perhaps the best defensive outside-centre in world rugby, Lukhanyo Am.

In the second Test, however, that tactic didn’t work and in comes Russell to the 23 as one of the most creative flat attackers in the international arena. Can he be the man to thread the likes of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw through the minute gaps in the Springbok defence?

The sacrifice for this hopeful goal – Farrell dropping out of the 23 – has been made. The option of having a secondary playmaker at inside-centre has been rejected.

The short answer is that yes, he is capable of doing that. No defence is impenetrable and we have witnessed Russell spark some truly fantastic play for both Scotland and Racing 92, but the precision required is extraordinary. If it is slightly off, or the Lions pack isn’t giving him the front-foot and quick ball that he needs, then it is going to play into the aggressive and physical nature of the South African defence. 

The sacrifice for this hopeful goal – Farrell dropping out of the 23 – has been made. The option of having a secondary playmaker at inside-centre has been rejected.

Although Russell brings a real contrast to Biggar and Farrell as an individual player, by losing Farrell from the bench the overall tactical flexibility of the Lions would seem to be lessened, chiefly due to their inability to now hit South Africa with a deeper backline.

Finn Russell
Warren Gatland has picked an array of game-breaking talent on the bench (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Anyone who has seen Farrell play with George Ford and Johnny Sexton for England and the Lions respectively knows the value he can bring in staying deeper and providing an accurate passing game off either hand beyond the reaches of even the most rapid of blitz defences. By providing that depth and that accuracy of pass, a backline with Farrell at 12 can bypass a blitz by asking the defence to have to do too much, rather than always playing flat to the gain line in smaller spaces. 

When the flat attack play comes off, it’s spectacular. When it doesn’t, teams are never too far away from hitting the panic button, not least so when you play a defence as well drilled as the one put together by Jacques Nienaber. This is the risk that Gatland has taken and, in fairness to the Kiwi, it’s these kind of big decisions that he tends to get right.

If Gatland wants to unleash the haymakers from his bench, he’s going to need his starters to go to the body – again and again – to lay the foundations for that knockout blow.

All of the above being said, it’s going to count for nothing if the Lions can’t do a more adept job of kicking and competing on Saturday than they did in the previous Test.

All of the intricacies of the Russell versus Farrell debate and the positive impact of their very own ‘Bomb Squad’ will fade into insignificance if Ali Price and Biggar, and the chase from Duhan van der Merwe, Josh Adams, Liam Williams and Co, can’t get on top of South Africa and cause them problems.

If Gatland wants to unleash the haymakers from his bench, he’s going to need his starters to go to the body – again and again – to lay the foundations for that knockout blow.

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