Alun Wyn Jones will complete a stunning recovery and captain the British & Irish Lions in Saturday’s first Test against South Africa – just four weeks since dislocating his shoulder – after Warren Gatland named his side to face the Springboks.
Favouring form over reputation and eyeing a fast start, Gatland has also picked Ali Price at scrum-half, Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker, Tom Curry at openside flanker and Jack Conan at No 8, with nine of the XV winning their first Lions caps. Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe also start, while the eye-catching omissions include Conor Murray – who was named tour captain when Jones was initially struck down by injury – and the England captain Owen Farrell. They both provide cover from the bench.
Jones’s return is remarkable but Gatland is satisfied that the 35-year-old has proved his fitness in his appearance against the Stormers off the bench on Saturday and he lines up alongside Maro Itoje in a reprisal of the second-row partnership that performed so well against New Zealand four years ago.
Up front, Cowan-Dickie is rewarded for a fine showing against the Stormers with Ken Owens providing cover, meaning no place in the 23 for Jamie George. Wyn Jones is at loosehead prop with Rory Sutherland on the bench, leaving Mako Vunipola as another of the England and Saracens contingent missing out altogether. In the back row, Curry and Conan are joined by Courtney Lawes with Hamish Watson making do with a place among the replacements.
Price is the form scrum-half and edges out Murray with Dan Biggar getting the nod at fly-half. Robbie Henshaw has recovered from his hamstring injury to line up at inside centre with Elliot Daly at outside centre, having last started a Test there in November 2016, also against South Africa. Van der Merwe is a surprise selection on the left wing ahead of Josh Adams – who is out of the 23 altogether – while Anthony Watson is on the right and Hogg finally wins his first Lions Test cap on his third tour at full-back.
“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. tuttavia, 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’ 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. While the stands will be empty in Cape Town Stadium, we know Lions fans from across the home nations will be cheering us on back home. We’ll do our best to get the win.”