Lawrence Dallaglio column: Having Alun Wyn Jones back is a massive lift for the Lions - the Miracle Man is their spiritual leader

·4-min read

The Lions got their big pre-series test in Wednesday’s bruising defeat to South Africa A, a match that lived up to all the hype.

Tomorrow they are up against lesser opposition again in the DHL Stormers, but there is just as much at stake. For the 23 players selected, it is one final chance to force their way into the team for next Saturday’s First Test.

I have no doubt this will be Warren Gatland’s message to his side tomorrow. He has said this week that 60 per cent of his Test team remains to be decided, and I still believe no one has played themselves out of contention for the 23 so far.

The selectors will have a good sense of where they are heading, but an eye-catching or dominant performance in this game can shift things massively. Players can be catapulted into the XV with one great display. The coaches will also see it as a final chance to try out different combinations that could work next week.

For those not involved in tomorrow’s game, it is different. They are just left hoping they have done enough to cement their place in the side. But, a week out from the First Test, you would rather be playing than not in this one.

There were clearly things from Wednesday’s match the Lions need to work on. They were overpowered at the breakdown by South Africa A, and they cannot afford to give teams a head-start on the scoreboard as they did there. You need to fly out of the blocks.

But there is nothing they cannot iron out in the next week, which is an enormous training week for them. The guys who won’t make the Test 23 have an important job to do on the training field. This is the part of the tour that everyone involved has been waiting for.

The nature of this tour means that even those not sure of their place in the 23 will be on their toes. Every match seems to have late changes. Just look at Wednesday — Josh Adams withdrew to watch the birth of his first child, while Dan Biggar was injured. We cannot rule out Covid, either. We can’t be totally sure who is taking the field until that first whistle blows.

The Lions side tomorrow is an interesting one. They will be delighted to have Stuart Hogg back at full-back, having been locked away in isolation for a week, and Robbie Henshaw returning in the centre. He has been injured since the Japan match and has one shot to prove he is worthy of a Test jersey.

Both of them are returning, but neither has anything on the miracle man Alun Wyn Jones in terms of a comeback. It is phenomenal that he has been named on the bench three weeks after his tour was ‘ended’ by a dislocated shoulder. It seems that the injury was not quite as serious as first feared, but most players would have been out for much longer. It is a credit to the player that he has managed to get back this soon. It shows his remarkable professionalism.

It will also provide a massive lift to the rest of the squad to see their spiritual leader show how much the jersey means in returning so soon. He has been on three tours with the Lions and is desperate for a fourth.

He now has an opportunity to stake a claim to be involved in the Tests, perhaps even as captain. Gatland will reserve judgment on any of that until he comes through the 20 minutes he expects of him tomorrow. However, the fact he has been named in this squad makes Gatland’s intentions clear.

I also can’t wait to see Marcus Smith make his debut. If Jones is the legend that keeps growing, Smith is the fairytale that won’t end. He has had an extraordinary few weeks with Harlequins and England, and this is the next natural step. It is a superb call to throw him straight in to start, because he is brimming with confidence. Anyone who has watched him this season will know it should be a lot of fun.

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