Lions ready to hunt Sharks amid schedule uncertainty

By Sports Desk July 06, 2021

The British and Irish Lions are focused on delivering a strong showing against the Sharks on Wednesday rather than uncertainty over their schedule due to the coronavirus.

Warren Gatland's side thrashed Johannesburg's own Lions 56-14 in their opening tour match at Ellis Park on Saturday, Josh Adams helping himself to a four-try haul.

Tom Curry, Josh Navidi and Adam Beard will now make their Lions debuts, while Iain Henderson takes over as captain for a midweek showdown with the Sharks at the same venue.

Sam Simmonds comes in for his first international start in over three years, but it is once again COVID-19 cases rather than selection that has dominated the pre-match talk.

The Springboks suspended training on Monday after Lood de Jager tested positive for the virus, with the players forced back into isolation.

Positive cases in the Bulls camp have put Saturday's match in doubt, but Lions defence coach Steve Tandy said they are taking a flexible approach.

"We'd weigh up if we need to give the boys a day off, if we need an internal match or a heavier loaded contact day," Tandy said when asked about plans if the Bulls game is called off.

"Through COVID, I think you learn you need to adapt. You can have the best laid plans, but things move really quickly and change - it's just be prepared for whatever comes our way at whatever moment in time. Whatever the group needs, more contact, an extra day off for recovery - we'll just adapt that as we go."

Phepsi Buthelezi returns t0 lead the Sharks at number eight, while Khutha Mchunu takes Wiehahn Herbst's place in the front row.

 

SIMMONDS DETERMINED TO GRASP HIS CHANCE

Simmonds has continued to be overlooked by England head coach Eddie Jones despite producing consistently outstanding performances for Exeter Chiefs.

The number eight, comfortably the leading try-scorer in the Premiership last season with 21, is determined to show he belongs on the Test stage.

"When you are starting you really get the opportunity to show what you can do and hopefully put what I have been doing in the last year or so into a Lions jersey," Simmonds said.

"As soon as I got selected for the Lions squad that was my sole focus – to push everyone here, to push to try and get as many games as I can and as a team the ultimate goal is to win the Test series in South Africa."

 

 

GATLAND WANTS BACK ROW TO PUT ON SHOW

New Zealander Gatland is excited to see what the back row he has selected can serve up in the second tour match.

"There's a huge amount of competition in the back row and I spoke to them all last night and just said, 'Look, you've got a licence from me to get your hands on the ball'," coach Gatland said.

"I want them to express themselves. I said they are probably not renowned as lineout experts but you have to play to your strengths, and they are strong defenders and great ball carriers.

"It's a different aspect to look at, but it's exciting and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they go as a trio. If you look at those players they are strong defenders, exciting ball carriers."

 

British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zander Fagerson, Iain Henderson (captain), Adam Beard, Josh Navidi, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris.

 

Sharks: Manie Libbok, Werner Kok, Jeremy Ward, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams, Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Khwezi Mona, Fez Mbatha, Khutha Mchunu, Ruben van Heerden, Hyron Andrews, James Venter, Thembelani Bholi, Phepsi Buthelezi (captain).

Replacements: Kerron van Vuuren, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Wiehahn Herbst, JJ van der Mescht, Reniel Hugo, Dylan Richardson, Grant Williams, Anthony Volmink.

 

Key Opta facts

- The Sharks and the Lions met in 2009, with the tourists winning that match 39-3. Lee Mears, Mike Phillips, Luke Fitzgerald, Lee Byrne and Jamie Heaslip all crossed for tries.
- The Lions have won 10 of their 11 fixtures against the Sharks/Natal, the exception being a 3-3 draw back on the 1924 tour.
- The Sharks had a 50 per cent win rate in the recently concluded Rainbow Cup SA (W3, L3), beating the Johannesburg-based Lions twice and the Stormers once.
- Following their victory over the Lions, the tourists are now unbeaten in their past five matches (W3, D2). That is their best run since winning six in a row in a run that spanned the 2009 and 2013 tours.
- The Lions are yet to miss a kick at goal so far in 2021, with Dan Biggar having slotted four from four and Owen Farrell landing all eight.

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    Thirty days later at the season's quarter-mark, they are healthier and look capable of repeating as champs as they enter December riding an impressive seven-game winning streak.

    A mere 91 days after winning the franchise's first NBA title since 1971, Milwaukee raised its championship banner and then emphatically beat a Brooklyn Nets team expected to contend for this season's title by 23 points. In that convincing win, the starting five of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez combined for 82 points.

    That has still been the only game this season coach Mike Budenholzer has been able to use that starting five, as Holiday, Middleton and Lopez have all missed significant time.

    With Lopez still sidelined since the season opener with a sore back, the Bucks signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday to provide frontcourt depth.

    A four-time All-Star, Cousins isn't the same player he was in 2015 and 2016 when he earned second-team all-NBA honours, but the 31-year-old should be able to step in and provide size off the bench.

    Milwaukee got Holiday back in early November after he sat out one game with a right heel contusion and another five with a sprained left ankle, but by the time he returned Middleton was already out with COVID-19.

    The Bucks finished up October with a 3-4 record and were 4-6 on November 7, scoring fewer than 100 points in exactly half of their 10 games – this after failing to reach triple digits in just four regular-season games all last season.

    In 11 games since then, they've only dipped below the century mark once and their current win streak has coincided with the return of Middleton from his eight-game absence.

    It should be noted, though, that a 12-11 Los Angeles Lakers team playing without LeBron James is the only team the Bucks beat in their last seven games currently holding a winning record and the collective .325 winning percentage by their opponents from November 17-30 was the worst in the league for any team's opponents in that time span.

    With that said, they still have thoroughly annihilated some overmatched opponents, holding leads of 20, 29, 51, 24, 20 and 22 in their last six games and now stand within a half-game of the Chicago Bulls for the Central Division lead.

    Antetokounmpo posted a plus-38 plus-minus rating in Milwaukee's 123-92 beatdown of the Orlando Magic last Monday, a game in which the Bucks had a 77-36 advantage at the half for the largest half-time lead in franchise history, while Holiday had a plus-37 rating – kicking off a historic stretch for the veteran point guard.

    In the last four games, Holiday has compiled a plus-117 rating – the highest for any player over a single-season four-game stretch since Stats Perform began tracking plus-minus rating in 2002-03. In that time, only two other players have registered a rating of plus-115 or better and that was Stephen Curry with a plus-115 in his 2015-16 MVP season and Mike Conley with a plus-116 last season.

    Holiday is averaging 19.8 points on 55.7 per cent shooting with a 61.5 eFG percentage in the last four contests following a three-game stretch in which he averaged 9.7 points on 30.6 per cent shooting with a 36.1 eFG percentage. In the four games since November 22, he's connecting on 69.2 per cent of 39 2-point tries and has made 8-of-9 jump shots from 10-15 feet.

    Holiday still hasn't found his touch from the perimeter, shooting 25.5 per cent on 51 3-point attempts in the last nine games, but that hasn't been much of a deterrent for Milwaukee as the team is getting outside help from an unlikely source.

    Bobby Portis has drained 19-of-32 shots from 3-point range (59.4 per cent) in the last six games, twice going 6-for-7 from beyond the arc. This is after he made 13-of-40 3-point tries (32.5 per cent) in his first 10 contests, only making more than one 3-pointer in a game on two occasions.

    Since his tear began on November 19, Portis and the Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball are the only players in the league with 100-plus points, 60-plus rebounds and 15-plus 3-pointers made – and Ball has played one more game and made the same number of 3-pointers on 19 more tries.

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    The trio of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court has always been a boon for Milwaukee but lately it's been utterly dominant. The Bucks averaged a stellar 113.9 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court in their first 17 games before averaging 133.0 points per 100 possessions with that threesome in the last four.

    No big surprise, with all the Bucks' opening-night starters back with the exception of Lopez, the offence has found its rhythm. Since its win streak begin on November 17, Milwaukee's starters are averaging a league-leading 84.9 points. The starters averaged 77.6 points in their first 14 games.

    While Milwaukee's offence is rolling, the defence has keyed the team's turnaround – setting the tone from the get-go.

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    The offence has been slightly better in the last six – averaging 31.8 first-quarter points after averaging 29.0 in the first 15 – but the biggest improvement has been on the defensive end.

    Facing their opponents' starting five, Milwaukee is holding teams to 37.4 per cet shooting – including 32.8 per cent from beyond the arc – in the first quarter in the last six games after opponents shot 50.4 per cent from the field and 44.1 per cent from 3-point range in the first quarter in the first 15.

    Overall since November 17, the Bucks lead the league in opponent field goal percentage at 39.1 and only the Warriors are allowing fewer points than Milwaukee’s 99.0 per game at 98.3. This comes after the Bucks allowed an average of 109.8 points on 45.1 per cent shooting in their first 14 games.

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    Beginning with the Hornets and running through a date with the Pistons on January 3, Milwaukee's opponents' winning percentage of .400 is the worst in the league. It's probably a lot to ask for the Bucks to continue to play at their current pace over this next stretch, but the opportunity is there for them to build a lead atop the Central come the new year.

  • Championship hangs in balance as Hamilton seeks third straight win in Saudi Arabia Championship hangs in balance as Hamilton seeks third straight win in Saudi Arabia

    One of the most memorable Formula One title races in history could be settled this weekend as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton continue their thrilling 2021 battle at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

    A high-speed street race in Jeddah will become the 76th circuit to host an event in F1 history and could be the scene of Verstappen being crowned world champion for the first time.

    Verstappen takes an eight-point lead to Saudi Arabia and after the event there will only be 26 left up for grabs in the Abu Dhabi season finale.

    But it is his in-form title rival Hamilton who will be feeling the best heading to a new venue as he seeks a third consecutive race victory for the first time in 2021.

    Hamilton has launched a stunning late-season charge in his bid to win an eighth world title that would take him above Michael Schumacher for the all-time record but still finds himself with little margin for error.

    Should Verstappen win the title, it would be the first time a championship has been decided at a debuting circuit since 1981 when Nelson Piquet was crowned in Las Vegas.

    There is also a scenario where the two drivers could, fittingly, go into the last race of the season tied.

    If Hamilton wins while setting the fastest lap and Verstappen comes second, the top two would be level going into the final event for the first time since 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi did battle against Clay Regazzoni.

    It has been an incredibly consistent season for Verstappen, who has nine wins, nine pole positions and finished in the top two for 16 of the 17 races he has finished.

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    LAST TIME OUT

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    Verstappen limited the damage despite a five-place grid penalty due to a yellow-flag infringement in qualifying, impressively recovering to finish second.

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    Valtteri Bottas, running in third, suffered a puncture as he attempted a one-stop strategy and ultimately retired, while Sergio Perez questioned Red Bull's call to bring him in twice as he pursued a podium.

    The Mexican could not catch Alonso and had to settle for fourth place, ahead of Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll.

    WHAT TO EXPECT IN SAUDI ARABIA

    With all the momentum behind him, Hamilton goes into the race at Jeddah Corniche Circuit as the favourite for victory, a result which would put the record eighth title within his grasp.

    But for Verstappen this event is the first of two opportunities he will have to be crowned world champion. Even a small mistake from either driver at this stage could prove pivotal and the stakes could not be higher.

    Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said their W12 car is performing better than it has been all season ahead of the event, with Red Bull under pressure to bounce back.

    The constructors' championship is also up for grabs. Red Bull have closed to within five points of their rivals, while Ferrari are looking to lock up third place ahead of McLaren.

    Aside from the championship implications, the debut of the fastest street circuit on the calendar at another new F1 venue should be intriguing.

    F1 have revealed average speeds are predicted to be over 155mph with top speeds almost reaching 200mph in what could be a spectacular night race under the lights.

    TOP FIVE OPTA FACTS

    Hamilton history – The Briton has become the F1 driver with the most seasons (eight) that contain at least seven victories, surpassing Schumacher (seven seasons).

    Maiden Mercedes – The team have won the race and taken pole position in the last five circuit debuts in F1. As well as in Qatar time out, it also happened in Sochi (2014), Baku (2016), Mugello (2020), Portimao (2020).

    Pole position – If Mercedes claim pole it will be their fourth in a row and best run of the season. However, Red Bull have had the better of qualifying this season, as Hamilton and Bottas combined (eight) have fewer poles than Verstappen alone (nine).

    Max milestones – Should Verstappen be crowned world champion, he will be the first Dutchman to achieve the feat, the first non-Mercedes driver to do it in the eight hybrid era years and the fourth-youngest in history at 24.

    Perez progress – While Verstappen's team-mate will not be thrilled to sit fourth in the standings, he has still collected nine points more in 20 races for Red Bull (190) than his predecessor Alex Albon did in 26 races (181) for the team.

    CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

    Drivers

    1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 351.5
    2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 343.5
    3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 203
    4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 190
    5. Lando Norris (McLaren) 153

    Constructors

    1. Mercedes 546.5
    2. Red Bull 541.5
    3. Ferrari 297.5
    4. McLaren 258
    5. Alpine 137

  • Tottenham defender Romero ruled out until 2022 Tottenham defender Romero ruled out until 2022

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    "Now he's trying to recover but he needs a long time to recover. It's a pity because you know he's an important player for us. The injury is very serious."

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    "Honestly, when I decided to become Tottenham manager, I didn't speak about this aspect," he said. "When you take a job, you have to make your evaluations and you have to feel your sensations. 

    "And honestly, I felt Tottenham was the right club to work and to bring my ideas and philosophy of football. For this reason, I accepted the job.

    "I didn't talk about January or the way to improve the team. I repeat: I'm here because I have great enthusiasm, great patience to start a new work with Tottenham. 

    "If I'm here it's because I want to build something important with the club. I know at the moment we're a bit far from the top clubs but we need to work to improve the situation. 

    "To start to and also to create a good basis where you start – and then you build. We can do this and then our fans will support us.

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    Spurs welcome Brentford to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium unbeaten in their last 11 meetings with their London rivals in all competitions in a run stretching back to 1948.

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