Lions stepping into the unknown like never before

By Sports Desk July 01, 2021

It is nothing new for there to be uncertainty over what to expect for a British and Irish Lions touring party but the class of 2021 are well and truly stepping into the unknown.

Typically all the talk is over selection. Who starts at number 10? What will the make-up of the pack be, who gets the nod as the centre pairing or which wingers will be unleashed in the first Test?

Of course those questions are still to be answered, but when the Lions arrived in Johannesburg on Monday they were not only facing the challenge of trying to secure a starting berth.

A big surge in coronavirus cases has seen South Africa move into a 'level four' lockdown, with travel restrictions, an alcohol ban and an overnight curfew.

As the Lions were preparing to fly out on Sunday, it emerged that Springboks trio Herschel Jantjies, Vincent Koch and Sbu Nkosi had tested positive for COVID-19 - forcing training to be cancelled and the squad going into isolation.

They have since been given the green light to train and are set to face Georgia at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Friday in their first Test since beating England in the 2019 World Cup final.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the drinks flowed as South Africa celebrated lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan and they have a new head coach in Jacques Nienaber.

The world champions have also faced uncertainty, with the possibility of the Lions having home advantage or the series being staged in a neutral country before it was confirmed South Africa will host the tour.

While South Africa know they will not be entering the Lions den, Warren Gatland and his touring party are not certain where they might be heading just under a month before the first Test in Cape Town on July 24.

 

They are set to face a namesake in the Johannesburg-based Lions side, twice runners-up in Super Rugby, on Saturday as one the first of five matches in Gauteng but it is reported they could make further changes to the schedule.

The COVID situation has led to suggestions the entire three-match Test series could be played in Cape Town, with alternations to the fixtures having already been made last month.

Hostile crowds usually await the Lions, but they are set to face the might of the Springboks behind closed doors without an army of travelling fans to roar them on.

They must also go into battle without inspirational leader Alun Wyn Jones, ruled out due to a dislocated shoulder in the win over Japan at Murrayfield along with Wales team-mate Justin Tipuric.

A strong camaraderie will be needed more than ever, with Conor Murray promoted to skipper the side in the absence of stalwart Jones.

But there will be a lack of nights out as they are restricted to bonding in the bubble.

Gatland's men drew 1-1 with then-world champions New Zealand four years ago and can make it three series without defeat next month - a streak that has not been achieved since 1959.

They have the same head coach and key men who starred against the All Blacks, combined with exciting new faces such as South Africa-born wing Duhan van der Merwe and Louis Rees-Zammit.

Gatland may be unsure what challenges the Lions will face on and off the field before the opening Test but the wily New Zealander knows will know what to expect from a formidable South Africa side.

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    In a pre-match news conference lacking much talk of the opposition, there was one question that stood out in that regard ahead of Rangers' Europa League final clash with Eintracht Frankfurt.

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    Tavernier's response didn't offer any particularly great insight, but his mentality of wanting to cause Kostic as many problems was at least another identifier of how their duel could be such a key battle.

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    The Jets received almost universal praise for their draft, acquiring cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II in the first round before then adding the consensus top running back in the class – Iowa State's Breece Hall – in the second.

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    2. Mac Jones, New England Patriots

    Were it not for the outstanding season enjoyed by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Jones may well have won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

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    1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers are set to step into the unknown in 2021, with all signs pointing to Lance playing his first full season since his lone campaign as the starting quarterback at North Dakota State in 2019 despite Jimmy Garoppolo's continued presence on the roster.

    Handing the keys to an offense that was in the NFC championship Game over to a quarterback with only two career starts to his name represents a substantial risk, but it is a risk the Niners are in an excellent position to take.

    While there remains no sign of the impasse between San Francisco and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel coming to an end, the Niners left free agency with a group of pass-catchers ranked sixth in the league in unit baseline. They added to that group in the draft by selecting SMU speedster Danny Gray in the third round.

    San Francisco's pass defense was also in the top half of the league in that regard going into the draft, while its pass rush was third in unit baseline and could have an even higher ceiling in 2022 if Drake Jackson adapts quickly to the pros. The Niners' second-round pick registered a pressure rate of 24.2 that was the fifth-best among edge rushers in this draft class in 2021.

    The Niners ranked in the top 10 in pass block win rate and seventh in run block win rate last season, yet their biggest issue may be maintaining that standard after losing left guard Laken Tomlinson to the Jets amid doubts over whether center Alex Mack would retire.

    Lance could, therefore, be playing behind a largely inexperienced O-Line this coming season. However, the data from his small sample size last year hinted at him having what it takes to elevate those around him. He averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt – the second-most in the NFL – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance's 77.1.

    His challenge will be to maintain that combination of aggression and accuracy over the course of a full season.

    If the Niners can come to an understanding with Samuel, Lance will have one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL to help him build on those encouraging flashes. He'll also benefit from the support of a stout defense built on the strength of its front and a diverse running game that will likely grow even more varied with him under center.

    The trump card for Lance is head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is arguably the pre-eminent offensive mind of the modern NFL. Between the talent on both sides of the ball and Shanahan's ability to draw up a running game and put receivers in space, the Niners are a high-floor, high ceiling team.

    There may be doubts about Lance, but there should be no doubt he is the quarterback in the best situation to silence those concerns.

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