The British & Irish Lions begin their three-Test series against the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday and will be led into battle by the Lazarus-like Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones.
Jones’ shoulder injury against Japan appeared to rule him out of the tour, with Conor Murray being named as captain, but the iconic second row has bounced back against the odds to take the captaincy.
Warren Gatland has named a Lions Test side that includes three Scots for the first time since 1997, while England’s Courtney Lawes and Ireland’s Jack Conan have both been included in the back row.
The Lions bounced back from their first loss of the tour against South Africa A by beating the Stormers 49-3 in their final warm-up game and will now look to avenge their 2009 series defeat against the world champions.
Gatland has dismissed any notions that he’s predictable or boring with his team selection for the opening test.
The three Scottish players selected in the starting XV are Ali Price, Duhan Van Der Merwe and the talismanic Stuart Hogg, meaning Murray and Wales’ Liam Williams will both start on the bench.
England’s Anthony Watson takes the other wing berth to complete the back-three while Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw have been paired together in the midfield and Dan Biggar has the No.10 shirt.
Luke Cowan-Dickie starts ahead of Jamie George at hooker, having delivered a man-of-the-match performance against Stormers, while Wyn Jones starts at prop alongside the experienced Tadhg Furlong.
The engine room is occupied by two cult heroes as Maro Itoje and Jones start in the second row, while Lawes will offer an excellent line-out option at six alongside Tom Curry at seven. 2021 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship Hamish Watson starts on the bench.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s matchday 23 includes 21 players who featured in the country’s triumphant 2019 World Cup campaign, including Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi.
Fly-half Handré Pollard will win his 50th cap in Cape Town while props Ox Nché and Trevor Nyakane, second row Franco Mostert and No.8 Kwagga Smith also start for Jacques Nienaber side.
ONES TO WATCH
Pollard against Biggar may not be the most exciting fly-half battle you’re likely to see in international rugby, but it’s certainly one of the most fascinating.
Pollard’s kicking and no-nonsense approach to the game will cause the Lions problems, while Biggar’s composure at the highest level is probably why Gatland has trusted him ahead of the other tens he has to choose from.
Biggar has been in great form all tour, as has scrum-half Price who has played his way into a starting No.9 jersey that was up for grabs when the Lions landed in South Africa.
His opposite number Faf de Klerk is rivalling France’s Antoine Dupont for the title of best nine on the planet, and he’ll have a great opportunity to claim that title if he performs to the best of his abilities in Cape Town.
WHAT THEY SAID
Lions head coach Warren Gatland said: “In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in.
“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. However, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on.”
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber said: “We know what the players selected can do. The fact that most of the players participated in the Rugby World Cup means they know one another well on and off the field.
“The forward battle is going to be as tough as it gets, so it’s important that we pitch up physically and ensure that we make our presence felt in the set-pieces and at the contact points,” added Nienaber.
“This, combined with their hard-running backs, will test our defensive system.
“But we have been looking forward to these matches since the Rugby World Cup concluded and we have done our homework, so it is a case of doing everything at 100% and sticking to our structures.”
South Africa: 15. Willie le Roux, 14. Cheslin Kolbe, 13. Lukhanyo Am, 12. Damian de Allende, 11. Makazole Mapimpi; 10. Handré Pollard, 9. Faf de Klerk; 1. Ox Nché, 2. Bongi Mbonambi, 3. Trevor Nyakane, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 5. Franco Mostert, 6. Siya Kolisi (captain), 7. Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8. Kwagga Smith.
Replacements: 16. Malcolm Marx, 17. Steven Kitshoff, 18. Frans Malherbe, 19. Lood de Jager, 20. Rynhardt Elstadt, 21. Herschel Jantjies, 22. Elton Jantjies, 23. Damian Willemse.
The British & Irish Lions: 15. Stuart Hogg, 14. Anthony Watson, 13. Elliot Daly, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Duhan Van Der Merwe; 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Ali Price; 1. Wyn Jones, 2, Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 6. Courtney Lawes, 7. Tom Curry, 8. Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16. Ken Owens, 17. Rory Sutherland, 18. Kyle Sinckler, 19. Tadgh Beirne, 20. Hamish Watson, 21. Conor Murray, 22. Owen Farrell, 23. Liam Williams.