It’s a Lions tour like no other, and not necessarily in ways that will benefit Warren Gatland’s touring party, but they have overcome adversity in the past and they could be about to do so again.
The fact that all three Tests will now be played in Cape Town is probably no bad thing for the Lions given it will be so much easier to acclimatise to sea-level conditions rather than the altitude of Johannesburg.
However, in recent years the Lions have enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish fans, support which they have thrived off. That won’t be the case in Cape Town.
It’s an issue for South Africa too, despite the fact that no team is more renowned for their ability to feed off emotional energy rather than that generated from the stands.
South Africa have only played one Test since beating England in the 2019 World Cup but all bar two of the matchday 23 featured in the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup-winning campaign, while all bar four of the starting 15 is the same as in the final.
However, there is no doubt that the Boks have been hardest hit by COVID-19 cases, with 14 members of their squad contracting the virus as well as coach Jacques Nienaber.
Sure, most are now clear of infection and available for selection, but a severe lack of recent game time is a major issue for Nienaber’s side.
Not that the Lions have much to shout about either. Gatland, in charge for a third Lions series, has publicly admitted that team selection for this first Test has been his most difficult as Lions coach given the combination of injuries, notably to captain Alun Wyn Jones, and lack of game time on the tour.
And, unlike South Africa, this a Lions team that has never played together in any shape or form.
The hugely influential Jones has, remarkably, returned to the squad having flown home four weeks ago because of a dislocated shoulder, and the Ospreys lock is fit to captain the side for the critical opener, which is a massive boost for the Lions.
Unsurprisingly, Grosvenor Sport can’t split these two sides, who are both 9/10 to win the game (dead heat rules apply if it’s a draw) but the wiley Gatland can smell blood regardless of his own side’s issues.
Despite their largely consistent team selection, the hosts are undoubtedly undercooked on the fitness front and Gatland has targeted this potential weakness by picking a team that can play at a high tempo and one that can ultimately outrun the world champions.
That theory is highlighted perfectly by the selection of Glasgow Warriors scrum half Ali Price who has been given the edge over Conor Murray because of his greater energy and dynamism in offensive areas.
It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of the first game in a three-match series. The Lions have an incredible record of going on to win the series seven times (from ten) after winning the opening encounter and victory in Cape Town on Saturday afternoon will put the visitors in an incredibly strong position.
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