It’s here. After so many Covid scares, logistical nightmares and hold-your-breath moments, attention finally turns to a British and Irish Lions Test this afternoon.
This tour - four years in the making for the tourists, 12 years for the hosts - nearly didn’t happen. And though there is no denying that this series has an unmistakably stripped-down feel to it, now that the opening whistle is just days away, the rising excitement is palpable.
Lions vs South Africa kick off time
The action begins today, Saturday 24 July, 2021, at 5pm UK time and will be live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Rugby.
Highlights will be available on All4.
Lions vs South Africa venue
The tour will remain in Cape Town as a result of a Covid outbreak in the Gauteng province, but this match was always scheduled to take place a stone’s throw from the Altantic Ocean.
Cape Town Stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, is a gorgeous arena that is nestled between lapping waves and the iconic Signal Hill which offers great views of the city and Table Mountain.
Host of five World Rugby Sevens Series events, the stadium has also staged an exhibition tennis doubles match between Roger Federer and Bill Gates on the one side, and Rafael Nadal and Trevor Noah on the other. The Swiss ace and the tech billionaire claimed the one-set contest 6-4.
Lions team news
15 Stuart Hogg (S), 14 Anthony Watson (E), 13 Elliot Daly (E), 12 Robbie Henshaw (I), 11 Duhan van der Merwe (S), 10 Dan Biggar (W), 9 Ali Price (S), 1 Rory Sutherland (S), 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (I), 3 Tadgh Furlong (I), 4 Maro Itoje (E), 5 Alun Wyn Jones (W), 6 Courtney Lawes (E), 7 Tom Curry (7), 8 Jack Conan (I)
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens (W), 17 Mako Vunipola (E), 18 Kyle Sinckler (E), 19 Tadgh Beirne (I), 20 Hamish Watson (S), 21 Conor Murray (I), 22 Owen Farrell (E), 23 Liam Williams (W)
Alun Wyn Jones completes his remarkable recovery to lead the Lions on his fourth tour with the side. The towering Wales captain dislocated his shoulder four weeks ago but starts alongside Maro Itoje in the second row.
A fellow second-rower by trade has been stationed at blindside as Courtney Lawes has been asked to put in a more energetic shift in the loose. Jack Conan and Tom Curry complete a triumvirate that offers blunt force with mobility and grace around the fringe.
A settled front row will have wanted to carry the momentum gained from the warm-up match against South Africa ‘A’ where the Lions scrum got the better of the Bok pack, but there has been a late change with Wyn Jones out with a shoulder injury and Rory Sutherland starting and Mako Vunipola drafted onto the bench.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” said Gatland.
“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.
Three Scots are among the backs, perhaps a nod to attack coach Gregor Townsend who turned the perennial underachievers into one of the most potent forces in the Six Nations. Duhan van der Merwe claimed ownership of a much fought over jersey to play against the country of his birth.
Owen Farrell will start on the bench as Dan Biggar begins at fly-half. Conor Murray will join the England captain despite serving as stand-in skipper during Jones’ absence. Ali Price of Scotland will partner Biggar from scrum-half.
Gatland was expected to name a 6-2 split on the bench but was perhaps convinced otherwise after South Africa selected three backs among their replacements. Either way, extra work from both sets of heavies and additional ammunition out wide could see this game become a very open affair in the closing minutes.
South Africa team news
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 1 Ox Nche, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8 Kwagga Smith
Replacements: 16 Malcom Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse.
Captain Siya Kolisi, winger Makazole Mapimpi and fly-half Handre Pollard all return after a spell of self-isolation following a positive Covid test.
The virus that has gripped the nation has also found its way inside the bio-secure bubble enveloping the Springbok camp. Coach Jacques Nienaber has also had his run-in with Covid as the team has prepared as best they could for their biggest assignment since the World Cup 20 months ago.
“There has been a lot of talk from people out there saying that we’re underdone,” said starting hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
“The only thing they’re doing is throwing more petrol on the fire that is burning. We’ll see what happens on Saturday. The whole team is looking forward to it.”
Nienaber defied convention by naming his team on Tuesday, a full day earlier than Gatland, and opted for a 5-3 split on the bench which is a deviation from the strategy that earned the South Africa lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time.
This likely puts extra emphasis on the surprise No 8 pick Kwagga Smith. With a sevens background he is nimble and fleet-footed but lacks the size and physicality normally associated with a South African at the back of the scrum.
Kolisi will unlikely play the full 80 minutes which would see Smith shifted to the flank and Rynhardt Elstadt enter the scene to provide extra heft as the clock counts down.
The backline is unchanged from the 32-12 win over England in Japan with the versatile Damien Willemse offering cover from 10 to 15.
Lions vs South Africa odds
Lions win: Evens
South Africa win: Evens
Odds via Betfair (subject to change). Click here to find out more.