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Warren Gatland brought forward the announcement of “the hardest selection” of his four tours with the British and Irish Lions for Saturday’s First Test against the Springboks by 24 hours, and confirmed captain Alun Wyn Jones’ remarkable recovery from injury.
Jones will start at second row in a Lions team full of surprises, with Ireland’s Jack Conan at No8 and Scotland trio Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Ali Price named in the backline.
Luke Cowan-Dickie starts at hooker in another show of the stock Gatland is placing in form on tour. Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly line up at centre, despite the Irishman only playing one game on tour due to a hamstring injury and Daly not wearing No13 – his preferred position – for England since November 2016.
Jones plays his 10th straight Test for the Lions, dating back to the last tour of South Africa in 2009. The game comes just four weeks after he left the field with a dislocated shoulder in the seventh minute of the pre-tour game against Japan. He was immediately ruled out of the tour, but a miraculous recovery saw him come off the bench against the Stormers on Saturday.
There is no place for a number of heroes of the 2017 tour of New Zealand, with Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Taulupe Faletau missing out altogether. Owen Farrell, Conor Murray – who was tour captain until just a few days ago – and Liam Williams only make the bench.
Williams has been battling a head injury, however, and his selection on a 5-3 bench is the only change from the 23 reported yesterday. He comes in for Irish lock Iain Henderson, giving the Lions the same bench split as South Africa, who named their squad yesterday.
Van der Merwe is preferred to Josh Adams, who is the leading try-scorer on tour. At blindside, Courtney Lawes pips Tadhg Beirne, who is on the bench.
The three Scots are the first Lions starters from north of the border since the legendary prop Tom Smith in 2001. Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson are on the bench, taking the tally of Scots to five in a 23 that includes strong representation from all four nations. There are eight England players, five Irishmen and five from Wales in the matchday 23.
Gatland said this was the most difficult selection of his four trips the Lions (he has been Head Coach for three), and says he is expecting a brutal game against the World Cup winners on Saturday.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” said Gatland.
“We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations across the 23, however, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on.
“We know what we’re coming up against on Saturday. It’s going to be an arm wrestle, there’s no doubt about it. We’ll need to front up physically and be ready to go from the first whistle. When we played South Africa A ‘A’ last week we probably took a bit too long to get into the game, something we can’t afford to do that again this weekend.
“We need to make sure we play in the right areas of the field, not give them easy territory and take our chances when they come.”