Pundits discuss who stood out for the Lions in Sharks thriller

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Sam Simmonds celebrates after the game with Anthony Watson and Bundee Aki

Four-time British & Irish Lions head coach Sir Ian McGeechan was impressed by how Warren Gatland’s side turned around their fortunes after a topsy-turvy game against Cell C Sharks.

While scores were level at half-time at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, the Lions managed to pull away in the second half after Sharks scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse was sent off just after the break.

Anthony Watson scored a second-half brace while Jack Conan, Elliot Daly, Jamie George, Tadhg Beirne and Tom Curry also dotted down after the interval to help the Lions to an 11-try 71-31 victory.

SECOND-HALF TURNAROUND

And Sky Sport pundit McGeechan believes that while it wasn’t a complete performance from the tourists, there were certainly plenty of positives to take from the second half.

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McGeechan said: “I think in the second half, there was a reaction.

“They made two early errors in that second half but they got far more disciplined in the way they were carrying the ball and the way that they were supporting – they ended up scoring some very good tries.

“Was it a complete performance? No, but they all know that and they know that getting rid of the errors and being able to maintain ball and get the carriers and players into the game is going to be key.

Tadhg Beirne scores a try

“But errors like in the first half are going to be a disaster against better opposition.”

And following their second-half turnaround, McGeechan and two-time Lions captain Sam Warburton singled out a number of tourists for particular praise in their 11-try rout of the Sharks.

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McGeechan said: “I think the back three [Watson, Duhan van der Merwe and Liam Williams] played really well. I thought Chris Harris played well too and I think he’s more of a 13 than a 12 but he does a lot of good things.

“But again in the back row, I thought Hamish Watson was great and when it was awkward in the first-half, he was the one who was crossing the gainline, still making tough carries.

“He was still making good yardage which will get the Lions out of trouble. I think they’ll know that the second half was very important and that their directness eventually, and the phases that came from it, led to good scores.”

WATSON IMPRESSES ON FIRST START

2017 tourist Watson was making his first start of the 2021 Tour in Pretoria, having made a cameo appearance for the Lions in the win over Japan before the squad flew out to South Africa.

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But while Watson has been in the shadow of the prolific Van der Merwe and Josh Adams so far, he made up for lost time against the Natal outfit with a couple of tries – much to the delight of Warburton.

“This Saturday now is normally the first where I think you see who you’re trying to line up for your Test team subtly,” said the ex-Wales flanker. “I thought Anthony Watson came in and showed everyone what he was all about.

Conor Murray, Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds celebrate after the game

“[Duhan] van Der Merwe backed up what he’s been doing all along and Tadhg Berne carried really well.”

If there’s one player who knows a thing or two about scoring tries, it’s Springbok legend Bryan Habana – and the former World Cup-winning winger was also impressed by Watson’s exploits against the Sharks.

Habana said: “We know he’s class. I think his workrate, his effort off the ball, his ability and Sam [Warburton] spoke about it, his slick feet, he just looks so elegant in the way he plays rugby.

“To have been so dominant and positive in an England side that probably wasn’t playing well and to bring that to the Lions set up with not that much game time – he hasn’t looked out of sorts at all.

“I think for all those youngsters out there, we talk about wingers working off their wing and giving the fly-half opportunities, Watson has done that superbly here.”

PLAYERS RAISE THEIR HANDS AHEAD OF FIRST TEST

Over on talkSPORT, 2017 Lions tourist Greig Laidlaw believes that a number of players have put themselves in the line for a starting berth for the first Test against South Africa.

Laidlaw said: “It’s a difficult one to call just because of the slight disruption in the way the Tour has gone with close contacts. There’s a few guys. Tadhg Furlong, I’m sure he’s going to be in there and Jamie George played really well.

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“For me Jonny Hill was excellent too. I thought Elliot Daly was really good this evening with a couple of class touches and Rory Sutherland I thought carried really well.

“It was probably more of a forwards game tonight but maybe three or four are starting to put their hands up and starting to shape that Test team – but it’s still quite early.”

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