The British and Irish Lions begin preparations for Saturday’s crucial first Test against South Africa from a position of strength, with only Finn Russell ruled out of the Cape Town Stadium collision.
The starting XV and bench to face the Springboks are close to be being finalised following a selection meeting on Sunday that lasted almost two hours and the few outstanding calls will be made by the end of Monday.
Near-clean bill of health
Warren Gatland’s options are improved by the near-clean bill of health to have blessed the Lions six matches into their tour, leaving Achilles injury-victim Russell as the only unavailable player.
Full-back Liam Williams undertakes the final stage of the return to play protocols for concussion on Monday and, if he passes, he will resume training the following morning.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones and centre Robbie Henshaw came through their comebacks from respective shoulder and hamstring injuries in Saturday’s rout of the Stormers unscathed to stay in Test contention.
Defence coach Steve Tandy admits there will be some unhappy players when Gatland announces the team to the squad but stresses that the series spans three Tests so more opportunities will arise.
“There are going to be massive decisions. There are going to be a lot of unlucky players,” Tandy said.
“We had an initial selection meeting last night (Sunday) which was a long one, covering all bases, because a lot of people have put their hands up. It’s a great place for us as coaches to be.
“We were becoming clearer and clearer as we went along, but it was one of the toughest things I have ever been involved in because so many people have been putting their best foot forwards.
“In other tours maybe people have played themselves out of the Test match 23, whereas all of our boys have really put their hands up in and around performances and the way they’ve been training.
“There will be bitter disappointment, but I believe that in this squad there’s such a tight connection that everyone will be geared up to winning that first Test, whether you are in the 23 or not.
“You want to pick from a healthy group and from a group where ultimately everyone is putting their hand up for that selection because that shows the depth of the squad.
“Over the three Tests people will probably come in and out of the team and we’ll need that depth right throughout the series.”
Only once before have the Lions bounced back from a defeat in the first Test to win the series – Finlay Calder’s class of 1989 hold that distinction – to leave Gatland’s men fully aware of the stakes this weekend.
A procession against modest provincial opposition now makes way for the business end of the tour and prop Tadhg Furlong is relishing what lies in wait at Cape Town Stadium.
“It’s big boy rugby, on a big stage. You can feel it around the place. It has a lot of importance on it – rugby players in general rise to these occasions, with that internal want to do well,” Furlong said.
“It’s nervous. Everyone’s a little bit on edge. We’re into the nitty-gritty of the tour now and it means a lot to people, so everyone is just waiting to see how it pans out – if you are in or out of the team.
“It means so much to me, not to get personal about it but I have been through a rough year with injury etc.
“But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel where you are trying to get on a Lions tour and to do something special with this group of players.”