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No ‘dirt-trackers’ as Gatland tells entire squad to stay focused


R

assie Erasmus has spent the week desperately trying to draw attention away from his South Africa team by creating distractions on social media.

Warren Gatland, meanwhile, has had much in his favour between the First and Second Tests: experience of this situation from previous tours, an abundance of options when selecting his team and, most importantly, a 1-0 lead.

Gatland opted to merely shuffle his hand for Saturday’s Second Test. In essence, his three changes centred on how he uses his bench.

In the First Test, he had a bench to tighten things up after a fast start that he hoped would stretch South Africa. This time, with Taulupe Faletau, Ali Price and Elliot Daly waiting in the wings, they will be looking to exploit gaps and play rugby late in the game.

If Dan Biggar does not pass his concussion tests and Owen Farrell is promoted to start, the bench could take on an even wilder look, with Marcus Smith or, if fit, Finn Russell coming in. Three changes felt like a tweak to Gatland’s winning team. Given the quality of players at his disposal, he certainly could have made more.

There are 15 players who have not been involved in either Test, from Test veterans, in Jamie George and Iain Henderson, to wide-eyed youngsters whose time will come, like Louis Rees-Zammit and Marcus Smith, via those nursing injuries, such as Wyn Jones and Finn Russell.

The tour’s top try-scorer, Josh Adams, remains among them.On previous, longer Lions tours this group would have played a match last night, between the First and Second Tests, but the schedule for this one was always more curt because Gatland wanted no distractions from Test preparation.

After that final midweek game and their fixture list complete, the “dirt-trackers” were effectively declared “off tour”. They were expected at training, helping their comrades prepare for the final two Tests while standing by in case there was an injury. But they also enjoyed themselves after dark; many of those players’ foremost memories of a Lions tour come at the end, when they are not playing, rather than the beginning, when they are.

Some players leaving regret that they did not recognise sooner that they were not likely to play a Test. In 2017, James Haskell made “bin juice”, as he renamed the “dirt-trackers”, his very brand from the moment he arrived.

On this tour, there will be no escape from the hotel. Gatland says he understands the difficulty of that, but the message has been that there is no Test or midweek team on this tour – and that changes are likely next week whether the Lions win or lose this weekend.


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