England’s Anthony Watson to draw on World Cup experience to help Lions beat the Boks

Anthony Watson’s memory of the 2019 World Cup final has provided two essential pointers for the British and Irish Lions series’ opener against South Africa - start fast and win the aerial battle.

Push and Shove: Courtney Lawes and Alun Wyn Joes, right, get to grips with each other during training yesterday. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire:
Push and Shove: Courtney Lawes and Alun Wyn Joes, right, get to grips with each other during training yesterday. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire:

Watson was present for England’s crushing defeat by the Springboks in Japan and is expected to be given a prominent role in Saturday’s clash at Cape Town Stadium

Twenty months ago Eddie Jones’ men began slowly and never recovered with Watson also viewing the world champions’ barrage in the air, directed by half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, as instrumental in their downfall.

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“The importance of the kicking game, that was huge in that World Cup final. We came out second best to them. They definitely dominated us in that area,” the Bath wing said.

Mascot: Louis Rees-Zammit of the British & Irish Lions carries the tour mascot during the training session at the Hermanus High School, South Africa. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire.

“They gained great momentum and gained great field position from that area and that gave them the leg up they needed.

“And similar to the South Africa A game last week as well as the World Cup final, the start was huge.

“We didn’t put ourselves in good positions in either of those two games and therefore found ourselves trying to claw our way back into the game, which is much more difficult against a team like South Africa.

“It’s important to get off to a good start, 100 per cent against these guys. And that’s it on a smaller scale if you look at the entire series - how important it is to get off to a good start, not only in the game but in the series.”

Final preparations: Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Picture: Steve Haag/PA Wire.

The Springboks field the game’s most physical pack with Siya Kolisi at the helm following his recovery from coronavirus, but Watson insists that they are just as formidable behind the scrum.

“They have more subtlety in their backs.

“They’ve got some individual players who have very rounded skill sets - guys like Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Damian de Allende and Handre Pollard,” Watson said.

“They can be physical but they’ve also got good footwork and good skill sets. It’s about being prepared.

“If you do your due diligence in terms of your homework, you know what they like to do in certain positions and you know what to expect in certain areas of the field. That puts you in good stead come Saturday.”

The players will learn on Tuesday if they have been picked to start the first Test, leaving three full days for the starting XV to fine tune preparations.

Full-back Liam Williams has completed his return to play protocols for concussion, placing him in contention for a back three spot, most likely alongside Watson and Josh Adams.

Among their tasks in Cape Town will be stopping Kolbe, South Africa’s superstar wing with electric footwork and searing pace.

“Whoever is up against him will just have to make sure they do their homework. Everyone is aware of his skill set and how much he can influence a game,” Watson said.

“But you can also flip it on its head and try and look at where you can expose him on a one-to-one basis as well. It is not just all about him going forward.

“He has also got to defend whoever is against him. It is not a one-way battle.”

The Lions will play the final two Tests of their series against South Africa in Cape Town in order to reduce the risk of either camp suffering additional outbreaks of coronavirus.

After Saturday’s opener at Cape Town Stadium, the tour was scheduled to relocate to Johannesburg for the remaining games.

However, the severity of the pandemic in Gauteng, where the Delta variant is causing escalating problems, has forced a rethink in conjunction with medical experts.

SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said: “The data pointed in only one direction. The series has already been significantly disrupted by Covid-19 and a return to Gauteng at this time would only increase the risks.

“We now have two teams in bio-secure environments without any positive cases or anyone in isolation. To now return to the Highveld would expose the series to renewed risk.

“Everyone wants to see the two squads, at their strongest, play out an unforgettable series over the next three weekends and this decision gives us the best opportunity to see that happen.”

Both camps have been affected by coronavirus in the build-up to the series, although South Africa were hit significantly harder.

Captain Siya Kolisi and fly-half Handre Pollard were among 14 Springboks to test positive, resulting in a 10-day spell in self-isolation. Head coach Jacques Nienaber also tested positive.

Attack coach Gregor Townsend and full-back Stuart Hogg were among a handful of the tourists forced to quarantine in Johannesburg while the rest of the squad headed to Cape Town.

“We are fully supportive of this decision which we believe to be in the best interest of the Test series,” Lions managing director Ben Calveley said.