Smith turns Gatland's head with starring role for Lions as Springboks series looms

By Sports Desk July 17, 2021

Marcus Smith played himself into contention to start the first Test against South Africa after a debut for the British and Irish Lions that delighted Warren Gatland.

Coach Gatland also expressed satisfaction at seeing Alun Wyn Jones back in action during Saturday's 49-3 win over the Stormers, three weeks after the captain dislocated his shoulder against Japan.

There will be "robust debate" over the coming days, Gatland predicted, as he and his coaching team consider their options for the July 24 series opener against the Springboks.

"With Marcus Smith, the longer the game went on, the better he looked and more comfortable out there," Gatland said.

Smith was a late addition to the tourists' squad, summoned from England duty after winning his first caps for Eddie Jones' side, but the Harlequins fly-half brought youthful zest to the Lions in Cape Town.

His kicking was reliable too, Smith nailing the extras for each of the Lions' seven tries.

As for whether the 22-year-old should start against South Africa, Gatland said: "Those are conversations we haven't had. I thought he looked good out there, some lovely touches. He kicked for goal well and I thought he defended well.

"For a guy who's only had one training session I thought it was pretty good. He'll be part of the discussions, no doubt about that.

"A lot of people put their hand up tonight and there were some pleasing performances on Wednesday too."

Wednesday's game saw the Lions beaten 17-13 by a strong South Africa A team, and Gatland made wholesale changes for the Stormers clash, allowing him to have a good look at all his options.

The return of Jones, who arrived in South Africa only on Thursday, means he assumes the tour captaincy again. That responsibility was initially transferred to Conor Murray when it appeared Jones had no chance of being involved.

Murray was more than happy to hand over the leadership duty, Gatland said, with one caveat.

"Conor, he's the first to admit he was more than comfortable for Alun Wyn to come back," Gatland said. "He wasn't prepared to give up his bedroom suite though, because I think he got the captain's bedroom suite."

Jones had almost half an hour as a second-half replacement against the Stormers, and Gatland said Test rugby's most-capped player would benefit from getting back to action.

"I thought he put a few shots on and defended well, had a couple of touches," Gatland said in his post-game news conference.

"The big thing for him was to get through that period and then to see how he was afterwards.

"We'll have that discussion about whether there's a role for him, either as a starter or a bench player or not involved next week.

"If he is not involved, we'll look at who potentially leads the team."

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