Alun Wyn Jones arrives in South Africa and lands place on Lions bench
As recently as a week ago no one could have imagined the British & Irish Lions would announce a matchday squad containing Alun Wyn Jones and Marcus Smith to face the Stormers on Saturday. Even Warren Gatland, who has made some eye-raising selections in his time, has never presided over a more rapidly changing Lions landscape.
In Jones’s case it just goes to show how far a relentlessly determined mindset and a ridiculously high pain threshold can take you. Three weeks after dislocating a shoulder against Japan at Murrayfield, the original tour captain will be back in a red Lions jersey just over 48 hours after touching down in South Africa.
Lazarus himself would be open-mouthed but there remains one significant caveat: the Lions cannot risk their returning king in next week’s first Test unless he can demonstrate his left shoulder is ready to take the strain. “We feel that if he’s going to put himself in contention he needs 20 minutes,” said Gatland.
“We’ve been looking very closely at a number of videos of Welsh training sessions he has taken a part in. If the medical team hadn’t passed him fully fit, he wouldn’t be here.”
As anyone who has ever suffered a dislocated shoulder will know, it is the nagging fear of a recurrence that takes longest to cure. Sod’s law also invariably applies. The reflex grab at a jinking opponent, the unlucky slip that results in a heavy fall; all the strapping in the world will be no use if the joint unexpectedly twists in a certain direction.
If the granite-hewn Jones does come through unscathed, though, it will be a significant moment. Wednesday’s 17-13 defeat to South Africa ‘A’ was a game of two distinct halves and the Lions will not want to revisit the first 40 minutes when their opponent’s power and intensity gave a taste of what awaits in the Test series. Soaking that up and coming back for more is the 35-year-old’s default setting, even before you consider his leadership experience.
As Gatland has also made clear, this is also a crucial fixture for some other Test candidates, not least Scotland’s Ali Price. If Smith’s stock has risen vertically over the past month – which has yielded a Premiership title and his first two England caps – the opposite is in danger of happening to Conor Murray should Price have a good game.
Whether or not the cares of unexpected leadership are weighing him down, Murray was nowhere near his authoritative best opposite Faf de Klerk and Price has looked the sharpest Lions scrum-half. “We’ve been pleased with the way that he’s gone,” Gatland said. “It’s a really good game for him to play and gives him an opportunity to put his hand up.”
The same will be true for Robbie Henshaw, finally over his hamstring issues, and Stuart Hogg, forced to isolate until midweek. Hogg found the experience so “horrendous” at times he says he “would not wish it on my worst enemy”, but finally he has a shot at redemption having also had his 2017 Lions tour ruined by injury.
While Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes are being rested for more ferocious battles to come, Gatland said two-thirds of his 23-man squad for the first Test remains up in the air. “There’s a few guys who aren’t involved who we’re pretty happy with but it’s still an opportunity for the guys to go and stake a claim as well.”
With impactful energy off the bench regarded as vital, Gatland has also been encouraged by his side’s fitness levels and the prospect of all three Tests now taking place at sea level is being viewed as another potential negative for the Springboks.
Gatland, either way, remains unimpressed by the Boks’ director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, running messages as a water carrier – “My advice to him is to make sure he’s carrying water next time he does that” – and the decision not to show De Klerk a red card for a high challenge. “It looked reckless,” he said. “There’s definitely head on head contact.”
The matter will be raised again before the Stormers game – “We’ve got a meeting with the referees just to get a bit of clarity” – as the Lions understandably seek consistency before the Test series. It is a lovely notion but, on this tour, it mostly pays to expect the unexpected.