Head coach Warren Gatland is poised to make a number of major surprise selections, preferring the in-form players over established performers from the 2017 tour to New Zealand. Scrum-half Ali Price, No 8 Jack Conan, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and outside centre Elliot Daly are all poised to start at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
Price has set the bar for the scrum halves on the tour with his slick service and sniping threat, but will still be seen as a surprising choice ahead of Conor Murray, who was tour captain in Jones’ absence. He is likely to be partnered by Dan Biggar at fly-half.
Conan also looks to have edged out Taulupe Faletau, a long-term Gatland favourite, at No 8 after a series of abrasive performances in the warm-up matches. The English flanking pair of Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry are likely to complete the back-row combination.
Cowan-Dickie, who was man of the match in the final warm-up game against the Stormers, is also poised to win out at hooker ahead of Ken Owens and Jamie George, who drops out of the 23. Props Wyn Jones and Tadhg Furlong make up a dynamic front-row that could prosper against a Springbok team that have placed their best scrummagers on the bench.
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Having originally been ruled out of the tour after dislocating his shoulder against Japan on June 26, Jones only returned to the squad last week and played 26 minutes off the bench against the Stormers last Saturday. He is now deemed ready to resume the captaincy by Gatland, resuming his partnership with Maro Itoje from the New Zealand series.
There are also surprises in the backline as Josh Adams, who scored eight tries in his first three games, is poised to miss out with South African convert Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson getting the wing berths and Scotland captain Stuart Hogg coming in at full-back. Liam Williams has passed his return to play protocols following a concussion but misses out.
The biggest bolter of all, at least coming into this tour, has been the selection of Daly at outside centre where he last started for England in 2016. Daly also had a disappointing Six Nations campaign and was initially dropped for the final match against France. However, Gatland recognised the Saracen's talents were too good to ignore and he will form a tantalising midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw.
On the bench, Gatland appears set to unleash his own version of South Africa’s bomb squad with six forwards including Hamish Watson and Tadhg Beirne.
Boost for Lions as all three Tests to be played in Cape Town
By Daniel Schofield
The British & Irish Lions have been handed a significant boost with the confirmation they will not have to play at altitude during the entire Test series.
On Tuesday afternoon, the South African Rugby Union announced all three Tests would be staged at the Cape Town Stadium. The second and third Tests on July 31 and August 7 were originally due to be staged at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, which is 1,703 metres above sea level.
Heading into the tour, staging two matches on the Highveld was widely seen as one of the Springboks’ biggest advantages. While most South African players are accustomed to playing at altitude, the thinner air can leave visiting teams gasping for breath as matches wear on.
The Lions' head of strength and conditioning Paul Stridgeon had used altitude chambers in their Jersey pre-tour camp to prepare the squad for that very challenge.
However, with Johannesburg in the Gauteng region remaining at the heart of South Africa’s third wave of Covid-19, the decision was reached to keep the the series in Cape Town, where neither team has suffered a positive test.
"The data pointed in only one direction," said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby. "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.”
Meanwhile, South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber on Tuesday confirmed Siya Kolisi has passed the necessary medical tests following his Covid-19 positive test to lead the Springboks in the first Test on Saturday. Kolisi will captain a side including 11 of the players who started the World Cup final win over England in 2019.
Kolisi is joined in the starting XV by wing Makazole Mapimpi, hooker Bongi Mbonambi and prop Ox Nche who also ended their 10-day isolation period on Monday.
In total, seven of the Springboks’ matchday squad have tested positive for Covid-19. That proportion did not seem to perturb Nienaber who instead placed a premium on his proven performers’ experience.
"I think that’s probably what we’re looking for, is for those players who’ve been there before to give us guidance and steadiness and a calm head and find solutions, because I think there will be a couple of new pictures which will be thrown our way and we will have to be forced to make solutions on the day," Nienaber said.
"Probably with that then, and the experience that we have, we’re looking for them to provide us with that. Some of the players didn’t have Covid-19 symptoms at all, they have been managed according to their individual needs, and they have really impressed me with their intensity and enthusiasm at training."
While Nienaber has named five forwards and three backs on the bench rather than the 6-2 split South Africa deployed at the World Cup this is very much a Bomb Squad 2.0.
The five forwards weigh a collective 93st and Nienaber was only prevented naming a sixth forward by fitness concerns surrounding Covid victims Mapimpi and fly-half Handre Pollard, who will be winning his 50th cap.
At No 8, Kwagga Smith is preferred to Leicester’s Jasper Wiese who seems a more similar powerful fit to the injured first choice Duane Vermeulen. Smith fills more of a mobile, scavenging role similar to that performed so effectively by Heinrich Brussow in the 2009 Lions series. Perhaps the most surprising selection is that of prop pairing Ox Nche and Trevor Nkayane.
Both are seen as inferior scrummagers compared to replacements Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, suggesting the Springboks will want to drop the hammer in the second half. "We see our front-rows as a pairing, as a unit," Nienaber said. "We can swap them around and there won't be any weaknesses."
Questions remain about the physical readiness of those players stepping out of hotel isolation into a Lions series, but hooker Mbonambi insists they will not be undercooked.
"Joining the team on Monday we had to step it up physically and mentally, to match the intensity of the team. We’ve got a whole week together to get ready. We’ll be ready for battle. The people out there saying we’re underdone, all it will do is throw more petrol on the fire that is burning."
That is a slightly unfortunate analogy given that is the precise method that team-mates Damian de Allende and RG Snyman suffered serious burns in a fire pit accident last month.
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