A week after dispatching Japan 28-10 in Edinburgh, the British and Irish Lions clash with the Sigma Lions in the first of five games on South African soil before the Test series begins.
Here the PA news agency examines five talking points heading into Saturday’s match in Johannesburg.
Stuart Hogg’s rollercoaster period continues after being handed the Lions captaincy and number 15 jersey at the first available opportunity. The promotion comes in the wake of a disappointing climax to the club season with Exeter after he was dropped to the bench for the critical phase culminating in Saturday’s defeat by Harlequins in the Gallagher Premiership final. Now on his third Lions tour, the Scotland skipper will be determined to prove he should be involved in the Test series for the first time.
A leadership void was created when Alun Wyn Jones dislocated his left shoulder in the curtain-raiser against Japan, theoretically ending his tour, but Warren Gatland has raised the prospect of a “miracle” recovery. Gatland says the Wales talisman, 35, is optimistic he can pull through in time for the Test series after being told by medics that because his of age, corners can be cut in his rehabilitation. It would be a remarkable twist if he is ready to face the Springboks.
As ever, it is the midfield selection that offers the most intriguing clues for second guessing Gatland’s plans for the Test series. Finn Russell makes his first appearance at fly-half and will form a 10-12 axis with Owen Farrell, who is clearly regarded as a strong option at inside centre despite travelling to South Africa as part of the three-strong contingent of ringmasters completed by Dan Biggar. Four years ago Gatland opted for power at inside centre in the first Test against the All Blacks, but a week later Ben Te’o made way for Farrell. The twin playmaker option is clearly still at the forefront of the Kiwi’s mind.
On the strength of the first two teams named, Gatland has developed a clear preference for the balance of his back row – an out-and-out number eight sandwiched by a big, hard working blindside flanker and a fetching-style openside. Against the provincial Lions, Taulupe Faletau will operate alongside the physical Courtney Lawes and the high-energy Hamish Watson. It points to what Gatland believes will be needed against the Springboks with the only conundrum to date hanging over Tom Curry’s inactivity – the England flanker is the solitary player from the original squad yet to be involved.
On their previous five tours to South Africa, the Lions have won 95 per cent of their provincial games and given that Saturday’s opponents are the weakest opposition they will face over the coming weeks, they are overwhelming favourites to improve that record further. The Sigma Lions have lost only one player to South Africa’s squad – uncapped centre Wandisile Simelane – so are close to full strength, but they are still far weaker than the Japan side that was crushed at Murrayfield.