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Lions in roaring form and relishing South Africa A challenge

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The British and Irish Lions expect to see their seven-match unbeaten run put to the test as they take on a star-studded South Africa A side on Wednesday.

Warren Gatland’s Lions have been in superb form so far in South Africa, despite coronavirus complications leading to an ever-changing fixture list.

The touring side defeated the Johannesburg-based Lions and then followed up with a pair of wins over the Sharks, scoring at least 50 points in each outing.

Never previously have the Lions tallied a half-century of points in three consecutive outings, while only on three previous tours (1959, 1974 and 1997) have they done so in more than three matches at any stage.

Indeed, the Lions are unbeaten in seven – their longest such run since 10 straight victories across the 1989 and 1993 tours – and have averaged 7.8 tries per game in 2021.

But South Africa A represent a far more significant hurdle, having included 18 Rugby World Cup winners in a squad led by Lukhanyo Am as the Springboks ramp up their own Test series preparations following a number of positive COVID-19 tests.

“I probably wasn’t expecting them to be as strong as they are – they are obviously short of games – but I’m absolutely delighted with the team they have put out,” Lions coach Gatland said.

“That helps our preparation immensely so we’ll kind of get a feel of where we are and what things we need to work on in the 10 days leading into the first Test match.”

With a talented Stormers team up next, Gatland feels the hard work starts now ahead of the first Test on July 24 – at the same Cape Town Stadium as Wednesday’s game.

“We’ve probably not been tested,” he said. “Even though the Sharks put it up to us, we’ve not been tested over 80 minutes like we need to be.

“Hopefully we’ll get that over the next week, possibly with the Stormers and hopefully with South Africa A.”

This is also a big game for South Africa, though, as Am added: “We couldn’t do much in the six days in which we were in quarantine; we stretched and did basic workouts in our rooms.

“We also had several team meetings and did analysis via online meetings. On the other hand, however, we are going into the game fresh, and the players who had niggles had sufficient time to recover from them, so we will see where we are physically.

“We will certainly give our best on the field and push as hard as we can.”

CONOR CAPTAIN IN CAPE TOWN

Back in training with Wales following injury, Alun Wyn Jones could yet return to the fold for the Lions as he seeks to add to his record of 157 Test caps. But Conor Murray, the man who replaced Jones as tour captain, is in line to lead the team for the first time in this match. “It is going to be pretty much a Test match,” Murray said. “It is almost a fourth Test.”

CAN LIONS COPE WITH KOLBE?

Speaking to Stats Perform, Springboks great Bryan Habana picked out Cheslin Kolbe as his key man in the upcoming series. “He’s someone that excites me every time he gets his hands on the ball,” Habana said, and the Lions will get a first look at the wing on Wednesday, although getting close enough to touch him might be rather more tricky. Kolbe evaded 21 of 36 tackle attempts at the 2019 World Cup, the best evasion rate (58 per cent) of any player to face 30 or more.

British and Irish Lions: Anthony Watson, Louis Rees-Zammit, Chris Harris, Bundee Aki, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Conor Murray (captain); Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson, Josh Navidi, Tom Curry, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola, Zander Fagerson, Adam Beard, Tadhg Beirne, Sam Simmonds, Gareth Davies, Elliot Daly.

South Africa A: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am (captain), Damian de Allende, Sbu Nkosi, Morne Steyn, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Joseph Dweba, Trevor Nyakane, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Marco van Staden, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jasper Wiese.

Replacements (from): Malcolm Marx, Coenie Oosthuizen, Vincent Koch, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Rynhardt Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Damian Willemse, Kwagga Smith, Elton Jantjies.

KEY OPTA FACTS

– The British and Irish Lions played an Emerging Springboks side on their previous tour of South Africa in 2009, with the game ending in a 13-13 draw. They also beat an Emerging Springboks side 51-22 on their 1997 tour.
– The Lions are set to play at Cape Town Stadium for the first time; overall the Lions have lost just one of their past 10 games in Cape Town (W8 D1), with that solitary defeat coming in the first Test against South Africa in 1980.
– The Lions have scored 31 tries in total across their four games in 2021, 13 more than they managed in the entire 2017 tour; they scored 44 overall on their tour of Australia in 2013.
– Anthony Watson has gained 160 metres from nine carries for the Lions so far in 2021. His average of 17.8m gained per carry is the best rate of any player during an edition of the Lions tour since the beginning of 2009; Stephen Ferris previously had the best rate, averaging 14.8m per carry in 2009 (133m from nine carries).
– Morne Steyn’s Springboks debut came against the Lions back in 2009. Steyn played in all three Tests, scoring 19 points and not missing a single place kick (seven of seven) during the series.

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