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The verdict on the Lions team that no-one saw coming as Welsh stars miss out, Gatland can’t resist giant and Alun Wyn Jones confounds logic

It’s been called the toughest Lions selection ever, with close calls all over the place and big names in danger of missing out on Test selection for the series opener.

Even an hour before the official announcement, there were suggestions the team which had been leaked wasn’t bang on in at least one position.

Such talk proved groundless, though the bench was different from the one floated in the media on Tuesday evening.

Form has won the day in many positions, with reputations counting for only so much.

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The game which seems to have influenced the pick the most appears to have been the match against South Africa A, when the Lions came out second best in the physical battle and their only true warm-up challenge.

Just four players from that starting XV — Anthony Watson, Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and Tom Curry — feature on Saturday, with all acquitting themselves well against the men in myrtle green they faced that night.

But how many people would have come up with this side just months ago?

Ali Price at scrum-half? Improbable. Jack Conan at No. 8? Not while Taulupe Faletau was fit and well. Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker? Only if Ken Owens and Jamie George were unavailable. Elliot Daly at 13? He plays wing or full-back for England, mate. Try someone else.

Well, messrs Price, Conan, Cowan-Dickie and Daly all start this weekend.

Here are the main talking points from the pick.

Hogg finally realises Lions dream

Sitting on the bench for two huge Gallagher Premiership knockout games during the final knockings of the domestic season, Stuart Hogg could have been forgiven for believing his chances of playing in the first Test for the Lions against South Africa were slipping away.

Even when the tour games started, there wasn’t anything to massively contradict that view.

Warren Gatland may have made him captain for two of the games, a fine piece of man-management from the New Zealander doubtless aimed at lifting the spirits of the full-back, but Hogg didn’t exactly play the house down against either Sigma Lions or DHL Stormers.

What’s happened then?

Well, Liam Williams’ head knock against South Africa A wouldn’t have helped the Welshman’s chances, with concussion protocols to work through amid a measure of uncertainty, although Neil Jenkins confirmed on Tuesday that he had returned to training.

It’s still a surprise the self-proclaimed bomb defuser is not in the starting line-up. He is physical and a big-game player.

Hogg it is, though.

His case is unlikely to have been hurt by having Gregor Townsend as part of the Lions coaching set-up, with the Scottish team boss having worked with Hogg over many years at national level.

But the Springboks are likely to test Hogg’s nerve and skill by peppering him with high balls.

Eighty-five caps worth of experience should hold him in good stead. At least that’s what the Lions selectors will be hoping.

But the words of Ronan O’Gara recently still hang in the air: “High ball is crucial; for me, Liam Williams is different class there.”

Duhan van der Merwe gets nod over Josh Adams

There’s not much more Adams could have done.

If a wing’s primary job is to score tries, the Wales wide-man is of Alan Shearer circa 1996 quality. He has eight so far on this tour and topped the touchdown charts at the last World Cup with seven.

But here’s the thing: there’s much more to Adams than just crossing the opposition line.

He is also good in the air, he achieves turnovers — two on this trip, more than any other back-three player — he chases hard, he crosses the gain-line.

His problem is that the the Lions evidently can’t resist the temptation to pick a giant out wide.

Duhan van der Merwe is that man.

At 6ft 4in and 16st 7lb, he has been swatting aside defenders on this tour, beating 29 in four games — more than double the number beaten by any of his rivals. He has also made 463 metres with ball in hand and scored four times.

If there are concerns over his defence, with the big man prone to the odd missed tackle and possession turnover, the team management seem to feel that what he offers in attack more than compensates.

Daly does it

Elliot Daly kicks, he’s creative, he has speed and skill.

Is he the real deal in defence?

We are about to find out.

But as an attacking force, he’s a quality option.

Price is right

It’s not a complicated one here.

Price has been the best of the three scrum-halves.

Conor Murray hasn’t found his true form and neither has Gareth Davies.

Price has kicked superbly so far on this tour and managed games better than his two rivals.

He deserves his selection.

Cowan-Dickie wins the hooking battle

Form or reputation? What matters more?

It’s a poignant question, particularly during a tour when the opposition to date – save for one game – have been ordinary at best, pitifully weak at worst.

Gatland and his selectors seem to have erred on the side of form.

Luke Cowan-Dickie gave them such a nudge with his effort against the Stormers last weekend that all concerned might have come close to falling off their coaching bench.

There again, LCD has been playing well all tour, with a 100 percent lineout so far — 21 throws, every one finding its target — five turnovers and an energetic presence around the field.

Test No. 2 from 2017 Jamie George has performed strongly, too, while his deputy from four years ago, Ken Owens, is a good man to have for a physical challenge.

But it’s Cowan-Dickie who has won the day.

Alun Wyn Jones confounds logic

If every picture tells a story, it looked all over for Alun Wyn Jones as he left the field carrying a shoulder injury at Murrayfield at 3.10pm on the afternoon of June 26.

His face looked an image of resignation.

At that point, the chances of the Wales captain appearing in the first Test looked roughly in the ball park of a hermit being hit by a piece of space debris with his name on.

Or so it seemed.

Fast-forward 25 days and Jones is in the Test XV to face South Africa, and he’s in it as captain.

The recovery will only fuel the big man’s legend.

But being the type he is, he won’t be happy just to have been picked.

Saturday is a huge game and such matches require big performances.

Gatland trusts him to deliver.

Jones rarely lets anyone down.

Courtney to lay down the law

More than one past encounter against South Africa has been described as war without frills, so it doesn’t hurt for an opposition team to carry a play like Courtney Lawes.

The Englishman plays with an edge.

When the 6ft 7in, 18st 8lb back-five man tackles opponents they tend to feel the impact from head to toe.

Lawes is good at killing opposition attacks and he also carries the ball strongly while packing a presence that South Africans respect. His inclusion in the starting XV sends a message to the Springboks that the Lions are not going to be pushed around.

It is tough on Tadhg Beirne, who has been impressive on tour so far.

But he can expect to join the fray off the bench in the second half.

Gatland just has a lot of time for Lawes’ steel.

When push came to shove, the Englishman was the man the Kiwi couldn’t leave out.

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Curry edges out Watson

Tom Curry shone against South Africa A, the only true test the Lions have had on this trip so far.

That would have convinced Gatland that the Sale Shark needed to play in the series opener.

Hamish Watson has been excellent, ploughing through tackles around the fringes and not missing a thing in defence.

But Curry has also run strongly and let just one opposition ball-carrier past in 27 tackle attempts.

Gatland called the England flanker “awesome” after the last World Cup.

It’s a view he probably still holds.

Conan takes the No. 8 shirt ahead of Faletau

Pre-tour, Jack Conan was seen as something of a long shot for the Tests.

The Lions had Taulupe Faletau, vastly experienced and a player who had never failed for Gatland, in their ranks, after all, plus Sam Simmonds, who was in the process of completing a record-breaking season for Exeter Chiefs, smashing the Gallagher Premiership best mark for tries in a campaign.

But it’s Conan who has come through.

He’s the only one of the three No. 8s yet to miss a tackle on tour, with 32 hits and every one nailed, while he has made more ground as a carrier than the other two, achieved more turnovers and put in more passes.

Some may still believe Faletau has a higher ceiling as a player and so doubt the wisdom of the call.

The Wales star is also seen as a Test animal.

But form has won the day, with the stats suggesting it’s hard to argue too strongly against Conan’s selection.

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