- Luke Cowan-Dickie gives Warren Gatland food for thought with dominant performance at hooker
- Alun Wyn Jones comes through 26 minutes unscathed with first Test against South Africa only a week away
It was Luke Cowan-Dickie who emerged as the surprise leading light of the British and Irish Lions’ final Test audition.
The England hooker’s star shone so brightly in this comfortable victory over the Stormers at the Cape Town Stadium that it overshadowed even the extraordinary return to action of tour captain Alun Wyn Jones, just three weeks to the day that he sustained what was expected to be a tour-ending dislocated shoulder.
This last dress rehearsal had been expected to centre on the performances of Marcus Smith, Ali Price and Hamish Watson, as well as Jones’ ability to come through his second-half cameo unscathed.
That he was able to do so will have come as a great relief, not just to the player and his head coach Warren Gatland but to the morale of the entire squad, even if Adam Beard has proved to be a highly-impressive replacement during his absence.
But it was the all-court performance of Cowan-Dickie that is likely to have given Gatland the most food for thought when he and his coaching team sit down next week to pick their squad to face the Springboks.
He made eight tackles, eight carries and won three turnovers and had a 100 per cent success rate in his lineout throwing.
The Exeter forward almost singlehandedly dragged the Lions out of a rather subdued opening as, surprisingly, it was the Stormers who edged the early collisions and the linespeed of their defence pushed the tourists onto the back foot.
It was arguably the most eye-catching performance by a Lions forward out of all the five tour matches, with a potent combination of ball-carrying, turnovers and close-quarter defensive work.
He was denied a try for a double-movement from one of his trademark tapped penalties, but would not be denied when he powered over from a driving lineout maul in the first half.
The fact that he was withdrawn as early as the 49th minute suggests that his place in the 23-man squad at least is now secure. While Ken Owens has been a consistent performer on this tour and offers a wealth of experience, the hooker position now seems to boil down to a straight choice between Jamie George, who started all three Tests against New Zealand four years ago, and Cowan-Dickie.
The Exeter forward finished the Six Nations as England’s first-choice hooker, and while George has impressed on this tour, Gatland may yet be swayed by the sheer physicality of Cowan-Dickie.
“I think we put a good step forward,” said Cowan-Dickie. “The last couple of games have been tougher and it is good leading into the Tests. To only concede three points to a great outfit shows where we are going as a squad. We have got a lot to work on next week but I am excited.”
It proved to be a mixed night for contenders. Robbie Henshaw, desperate to make up for lost time on his return from a hamstring injury, defended with vigour in what was the first time the Lions have prevented the opposition from scoring a try on his tour. But he will have been frustrated about his lack of impact in attack after having been inked into the Test midfield when the squad left for South Africa. He may have to be content with a place on the bench now.
Ali Price, in contrast, continued the momentum of his previous performances and another high-tempo and accurate display is now putting extreme pressure on Conor Murray to be the starting scrum-half.
As for Smith, the England fly-half integrated himself into the side with aplomb, putting in some delightful kicks, while his pace and creativity came to the fore as this inexperienced Stormers side faded in the final quarter. The standout moment was a searing break from within his own half, creating a try for Louis Rees-Zammit, while his kicking at goal was unblemished too; seven from seven. And yet, if Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell are fit, it seems unthinkable that both will not be in the 23 next Saturday.
Hamish Watson also impressed with a busy evening, although his battle with Tom Curry for the No 7 jersey is arguably the most ferocious. Captain Stuart Hogg also looked back to his jinking best from full-back, even if the quality of the defending faded significantly during the second half. Duhan van der Merwe delivered another powerful performance.
Next week could prove to be the toughest selection meeting that Gatland has chaired in his three tours in charge.
“There were some really good performances,” said Gatland. “Luke was good, the second-rows played well. There was some good stuff from the back row.
“The longer the game went on, the better Marcus Smith looked and he became more comfortable out there.
“Duhan was strong on the wing, too. I was really pleased with the bench, the impact they had coming on. They kept the pressure on and we scored some lovely tries, particularly in that second half.
“I try not to go in with any thoughts that this is potentially a Test side. I try to let that develop and the players to have that opportunity to put their hands up. Sometimes it’s about looking at the players and their numbers and the stats and sometimes it’s about having gut feelings about certain players and combinations.”
For such a comprehensive victory, it was a strangely subdued opening by the Lions. Their inability to win the collisions and a lack of cohesiveness saw the tourists struggle to get out of their own half, and build any sort of pressure on their opponents. Tim Swiel’s penalty was a poor reward for their early domination.
Yet with Cowan-Dickie leading from the front, the Lions finished the first half in a dominant position.
Tries by Beard, Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill, after some fine handling from Beard and Hogg, put the Lions in control and with the game well beyond the Stormers, the second half was one-way traffic.
A nice combination between Smith and Elliot Daly put Jack Conan over for a try before the impact of Jones contributed to a short-range score by Zander Fagerson.
A brilliant counter-attack by Smith created the opening for a finish by Rees-Zammit, while Sam Simmonds completed the rout after Tadhg Beirne and Hogg combined following a strong break by Van der Merwe.
The glossy victory contrasted with defeat earlier in the day for South Africa A, who, fresh from their victory over the Lions on Wednesday, lost 17-14 to the Bulls at the Cape Town Stadium. Even though it was a much-changed side, it was a setback for coach Rassie Erasmus, even if it allowed him to give much-needed gametime to Joseph Dweba and Fez Mbatha, given that Bongi Mbonambi and Scarra Ntubeni are both isolating having tested positive for Covid-19. Damian De Allende also played for an hour.
Yet, for now, the momentum is with the Lions.
Scoring (Stormers first): 3-0 Swiel penalty, 3-5 Beard try, 3-7 Smith conversion, 3-12 Cowan-Dickie try, 3-14 Smith conversion, 3-19 Hill try, 3-21 Smith conversion, 2-26 Conan try, 3-28 Conan try, 3-33 Fagerson try, 3-35 Smith conversion, 3-40 Rees-Zammit try, 3-42 Smith conversion, 3-47 Simmonds try, 3-49 Smith conversion
Stormers: S Petersen; L Zas (T Bursey, 61), J de Jongh, D du Plessis (C Smit, 65), E van der Merwe; T Swiel (A van Reenen, 48), G Masimla; L Lyons (D Bleuler, 65), JJ Kotze (A-H Venter, 48), N Fouche (L-M Mazibuko, 66), E van Rhyn, JD Schickerling, N Xaba (M Theunissen, 61), D du Toit, E Roos (J Basson, 65)
British and Irish Lions: Hogg, Adams (Rees-Zammit 57), Daly, Henshaw (Harris 57), van der Merwe, Smith, Price (G Davies 57), Sutherland (M Vunipola 48), Cowan-Dickie (George 48), Furlong (Fagerson 53), Beard (A-W Jones 53, Hill, Beirne, Watson, Conan(Simmonds 57)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)