November 30, 2022

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Lions tour 2021: Stuart Hogg captaincy is smart move by Warren Gatland

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Warren Gatland is a shrewd man-manager, as he has proved once again with his decision to make Stuart Hogg captain for the Lions’ first tour match in South Africa.

It is a wise move, designed to revive the morale of the Scotland skipper, after an uncomfortable end of the domestic season at Exeter. 

The full-back lost his place in the Chiefs’ starting XV for their play-off semi-final victory over Sale and remained among the reserves the following week as the Devon club succumbed to defeat against Harlequins in the Premiership Final at Twickenham.

Stuart Hogg endured a difficult end to the season with Exeter but his confidence will be boosted by being handed the captaincy for the Lions' first tour match in South Africa

Stuart Hogg endured a difficult end to the season with Exeter but his confidence will be boosted by being handed the captaincy for the Lions' first tour match in South Africa

Stuart Hogg endured a difficult end to the season with Exeter but his confidence will be boosted by being handed the captaincy for the Lions’ first tour match in South Africa

Lions coach Warren Gatland showed his shrewd man management skills with the Hogg decision

Lions coach Warren Gatland showed his shrewd man management skills with the Hogg decision

Stuart Hogg pictured in a Lions training session on Tuesday after they arrived in South Africa

Stuart Hogg pictured in a Lions training session on Tuesday after they arrived in South Africa

It was a smart piece of man management by coach Warren Gatland (left) to hand Hogg (right, in training on Tuesday) the armband for the match against Gauteng Lions

It was a major shock when Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, dropped Hogg for these marquee fixtures and the implication in his explanation was that his high-profile recruit had not been totally committed to the job in hand. 

There was a distinct impression that Hogg was already, mentally, in Lions mode.

The initial demotion came as a major jolt and while Baxter claimed that the response from his wounded player was positive, it made no difference to his thinking for the final. 

So Hogg was no doubt relatively flat when he joined up with the Lions – and Gatland would have recognised that he needed to address this issue.

He has taken swift and decisive action to re-energise a senior player, by choosing him to lead the Lions – against the other Lions from Gauteng – ahead of Owen Farrell, the England captain. 

England captain Owen Farrell was another candidate but Gatland opted for Hogg this time

England captain Owen Farrell was another candidate but Gatland opted for Hogg this time

England captain Owen Farrell was another candidate but Gatland opted for Hogg this time

Louis Rees-Zammit takes responsibility for cuddly mascot BIL as the youngest in the squad

Louis Rees-Zammit takes responsibility for cuddly mascot BIL as the youngest in the squad

Louis Rees-Zammit takes responsibility for cuddly mascot BIL as the youngest in the squad 

Jamie George and Maro Itoje would have been other contenders, but Gatland has entrusted Hogg with the task and he will expect to be repaid with a buoyant, galvanised demonstration of counter-attacking and statesmanship.

It is another powerful and fascinating Lions line-up. There will be keen interest in how the electric Welsh wing sensation, Louis Rees-Zammit, fares on his debut for the British and Irish touring team, on a hard surface in Johannesburg which should suit him. 

On the other flank, Josh Adams can give his Test case another boost, after a try-scoring role in the victory over Japan last Saturday.

It is notable that Gatland has unleashed Farrell at inside centre, alongside Chris Harris – Scotland’s defensive lynchpin – in midfield, with Finn Russell at 10. 

Josh Adams scores the Lions' first try in their match against Japan at Murrayfield last weekend

Josh Adams scores the Lions' first try in their match against Japan at Murrayfield last weekend

Josh Adams scores the Lions’ first try in their match against Japan at Murrayfield last weekend

Farrell is more likely to wear 12 in the Tests than 10, which already appears to have Dan Biggar’s name on it, but the Irish axis of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw were excellent against Japan, so the Saracen can’t afford a slow start to the tour.

For Russell, this will be a seminal moment in his career, as he starts alongside his friend and long-time half-back ally, Ali Price. 

The maverick Racing 92 playmaker was picked in the squad at the expense of the more established but brittle Johnny Sexton and this is his chance to prove that he belongs and can be trusted by Gatland. If he ignites, the Lions will run riot.

Up front, there is an English influx and vast pedigree. George, Kyle Sinckler and Itoje will bring nous and clout to the front five, while Jonny Hill just has to maintain the imposing form he has shown of late for Exeter and try not to be over-awed in such exalted company. 

Ali Price, on the charge against Japan, is set to be one of the players to watch on the tour

Ali Price, on the charge against Japan, is set to be one of the players to watch on the tour

Ali Price, on the charge against Japan, is set to be one of the players to watch on the tour

Having Courtney Lawes at six, after Tadhg Beirne started there at Murrayfield, is a further indication that the Lions intend to have a prime lineout asset and a heavyweight figure in the blindside role.

While Taulupe Faletau will slot in comfortably at No 8 as someone who has been there and done it on previous tours, Hamish Watson can belatedly prove he is big enough to go toe-to-toe with South African packs. 

The Six Nations Player of the Championship must make a statement, knowing that Tom Curry is biding his time and is bound to be a front-runner to start the Tests at openside, whenever he is given an opportunity to audition.

Taulupe Faletau, who will at No 8, pictured during the Lions' training camp in Jersey

Taulupe Faletau, who will at No 8, pictured during the Lions' training camp in Jersey

Taulupe Faletau, who will at No 8, pictured during the Lions’ training camp in Jersey

Among the replacements, all those who have marvelled at Sam Simmonds’ try-scoring, turbo-charged exploits for Exeter will savour his likely debut. 

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Faletau is regarded as a near shoo-in to wear No 8 in the Tests, but Jack Conan was superb against Japan so Simmonds will know that he has to showcase his X-factor credentials, which could be a sight to behold.

It is quite some team and the touring Lions appear capable of bursting out of their bubble with a resounding victory at Ellis Park.

Lions XV to take on Emirates Lions

15. Stuart Hogg – captain (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland) #783

14. Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester Rugby, Wales)

13. Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland)

12. Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) #780

11. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales) #836

10. Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland) #835

9. Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) #843

1. Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales) #842

2. Jamie George (Saracens, England) #819

3. Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) #814

4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) #825

5. Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England)

6. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England) #826

7. Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland)

8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales) #779

Replacements:

16. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England)

17. Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) – Prop #787

18. Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)

19. Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland) #808

20. Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England)

21. Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales)

22. Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland) #837

23. Elliot Daly (Saracens, England) #822

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