5 key battles to decide South Africa series as Gatland rings changes for Lions

The British and Irish Lions are poised for a grandstand finish in Cape Town this Saturday when a second tour victory would secure a series win for either them or hosts South Africa.

It’s the first time the two teams have been level going into the final portion of a series since it changed to a three-Test format, much to the enjoyment of any neutral fans.

Lions leader Warren Gatland has made six changes to his XV for the third and final encounter, including the introductions of no fewer than four of his former Wales charges.

South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber has largely kept faith in the line-up that wrapped up a convincing 27-9 win last weekend, making only two changes due to injuries.

Those alterations have helped pave the way for a fresh batch of key individual head-to-head battles that will play a particularly important role in how this series concludes.

Josh Adams vs Makazole Mapimpi

After frustrating Welsh fans by omitting the winger altogether for the first two Tests, Gatland has finally drafted in try menace Josh Adams—but is it too late to have the desired impact?

One can only assume Anthony Watson was preferred on the right for the aerial threat he possesses, while it doesn’t seem anything can move Duhan van der Merwe off Gatland’s left wing.

What Adams may lack in height, he more than makes up for in intelligent, well-timed runs and reliable defending, the latter of which will be particularly important up against Makazole Mapimpi.

South Africa’s 2019 Rugby World Cup hero added to his CV with the opening try in last week’s Test win, and Adams will be pushed in all areas as he looks to win in a pivotal part of the pitch.

The Lions have encountered criticism for not getting enough ball to their wings this tour, and it will be fascinating to see how Mapimpi fares in his third straight start against a fresh Adams.

Eight tries in three warm-up games at the start of the tour sent the signal that Adams was ready for Lions Test rugby; now he’ll get his chance to prove the calls for his involvement were right.

Tom Curry vs Franco Mostert

There’s little overstating just how damaging it may be for the Springboks to lose back-row superstar Pieter-Steph du Toit, the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year.

Franco Mostert will move from lock to openside flanker as captain Siya Kolisi keeps the No. 6 jersey, but it’s a risky manoeuvre considering Tom Curry is the man opposite.

Without doing the Honda Heat forward a disservice, Mostert will struggle to match Du Toit’s activity around the park, although he did contribute a match high of 15 tackles in the second Test.

The 6’6” monster possesses almost identical physical dimensions as his fallen Springbok team-mate, but there are few in rugby who can profess to match Du Toit’s contributions.

The breakdown in particular is where the hosts could find themselves lacking, and Curry will hope the absence of a certain No. 7 makes his day’s work at the ruck considerably easier.

Liam Williams vs Willie le Roux

Stuart Hogg could well be considered unlucky to have lost his place in the Lions squad, but fans can rest assured they’re getting another quality guardian downfield in Liam Williams.

South Africa full-back Willie le Roux has thus far proved a dab hand (or two) in dealing with Dan Biggar ’s high-ball probes, but Williams can offer a more testing threat through the airwaves.

The Scarlets speedster also has the added benefit of that deeper connection alongside the likes of Biggar and Adams, with the coach reverting to those he knows in must-win circumstances.

It almost felt as though Gatland was so eager to disprove any suggestions of bias towards Wales—the team he coached for 11 years—that he was purposefully leaving the likes of Williams and Adams out.

Better late than never, Williams has 80 minutes to underline why he should have been the man at 15 all along.

Maro Itoje vs Lood de Jager

It’s the mark of a special player to impress even when one’s team is out of sorts, and Maro Itoje did just that even during last Saturday’s disappointing defeat to the Springboks.

The Saracens star has been jostling back and forth with Eben Etzebeth and Mostert across the series thus far, but he’ll have a new dance partner from the off in Lood de Jager this time around.

The South Africa lock might have even been compared to Itoje after he replaced Du Toit as the makeshift back-rower last weekend, though he’ll revert back to second row for the decider.

At 6’9”, De Jager has it within him to spoil the Lions line-out and complicate a key battleground for the tourists unless Itoje can quell his threat.

Ali Price vs Cobus Reinach

Changes for both teams in the No. 9 jerseys make for another mouth-watering battle between scrum-halves Ali Price and Cobus Reinach.

While Price has been promoted back to the starting role having impressed in the first Test, this will be Reinach’s first outing for the Springboks since October 2019.

Just how much that lack of competitive playing time will affect the playmaker is up for debate, although one can rest assured Price will be at the top of his game calling the shots for the Lions.

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