By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Head coach Warren Gatland has hailed the "brilliant recovery" of Alun Wyn Jones after naming the lock as captain of the British & Irish Lions side to face world champions South Africa in the first test of their three-game series in Cape Town on Saturday.
The coaching team debated whether the second-rower should start on the bench following his return last week from a dislocated shoulder, but decided his leadership qualities were vital after Ali Price was selected at scrumhalf ahead of Conor Murray.
"He’s (Jones) made a brilliant recovery to make himself available," Gatland told reporters on Wednesday. "There was a lot of discussion about whether we start him on the bench, but when we decided to go with Price at (number) nine, we needed his experience and leadership in the second row."
Price played himself into the starting XV with an excellent attacking performance against the Stormers on Saturday.
"We have been impressed with him in terms of the way he has played, his running game against the Stormers was very good, he had nice variations and is getting the ball away quickly.
"But it is not just about the starting XV. We want to get the right experience off the bench, so guys like (Owen) Farrell and Murray will have the chance to come on and hopefully close out the game for us."
Another big call was the choice of Stuart Hogg at fullback ahead of Liam Williams, though Gatland suggests it was a "toss of the coin" between the two.
Hogg will earn his first Lions cap on his third tour having been unlucky with injury in the past and has also faced COVID-19 isolation in South Africa this time round.
"Just his experience, he has captained in a couple of matches on tour. It was a toss of a coin between him and Liam Williams, it could have gone either way, but we wanted to give Stuart the opportunity. Hopefully he will take his chance."
Gatland admitted there was disappointment in the group among those who had not made the cut, and that there were some big hits in training after the team was announced to the players.
"I expected guys to be disappointed and they should be," he said. "We had a tasty training session yesterday with a bit of niggle and that is exactly what I want.
"It was the hardest selection meeting I have been involved in. I asked the (assistant) coaches to come with their match 23s, and we were all different. We all had to compromise and debate combinations and selections.
"Not one of the coaches got the 23 they came along to the meeting with."
(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Hugh Lawson)