By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - The British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa will come to a tense and edgy conclusion on Saturday with the contest expected to feature more of the attritional rugby that has marked the first two tests at the Cape Town Stadium.
The Lions won the first test by a narrow five-point margin a fortnight ago, roaring back into the game after a poor start.
Yet the tables were turned last Saturday as a powerful second-half Springbok performance helped them secure a 27-9 victory to set up a decisive final test.
The two contests have been abrasive battles, dominated by extensive kicking, thumping tackles, dogged defence and niggly enmity.
South Africa, who had been undercooked before the first test after 14 players tested positive for COVID-19 in the weeks before, came on strongly last week with their physical approach eventually overwhelming the tourists.
Lions coach Warren Gatland made six changes to his lineup for the last test, indicating he expects much of the same, with Liam Williams brought into the side to handle the high balls that proved the Lions’ undoing last Saturday.
With scrumhalf Ali Price and centre Bundee Aki, the Lions will look to speed up the contest, while prop Wyn Jones and hooker Ken Owens add power to the scrum.
South Africa’s changes are enforced and could be significant as both livewire scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and barnstorming loose forward Pieter-Steph du Toit will sit it out after injuries sustained in the last game.
Gatland expressed concern at the slow tempo of the second test, which was punctuated by frequent stoppages for television reviews and injuries, plus scuffles between irritated players.
The Lions had been clever in tiring out the Springboks in the first test but that was negated by a slower second game.
Gatland said there were two key aspects for the decisive encounter. “One is looking to keep the ball and also talking to the officials about making sure we keep the game flowing,” he said earlier this week.
It is expected that French referee Mathieu Raynal will play as prominent a role as his predecessors in the first two encounters. Nic Berry of Australia oversaw a first test filled with controversy while Ben O’Keeffe of New Zealand was in charge of the second fixture, which also had its fair share of contentious decisions.
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber said the experience of winning the World Cup some 21 months ago would stand his side in good stead amid the acrimony that has overshadowed the series.
“Big games like this take a lot of energy out of you in the build-up, a lot of emotional energy. It’s draining because there is so much at stake,” he said.
“It’s something that we will have to handle as a group and it’s the same with them.
“Luckily for us in our group, they’ve been there before. It doesn’t make it easier but it helps you having that experience.
“I’ve been there before, I’ve felt these butterflies before and you just have to work through it. It’s a do-or-die for both teams, it’s a final and it’s going to be massive,” Nienaber added.
(Editing by Toby Davis)