Alun Wyn Jones has been propelled straight back into the British and Irish Lions squad to face the Stormers with the aim of preparing him to take the helm against South Africa in the first Test.
Three weeks after dislocating his shoulder against Japan in what was announced as a tour-ending injury, Jones will take his place on the bench on Saturday for the final fixture before the opening collision with the Springboks.
It was during two full-contact training sessions with Wales on Tuesday that the game’s most-capped player proved his fitness in a remarkable comeback, taking a full part in line-outs, scrums and mauling as well as tackling in team versus team scenarios.
Gatland had stated that Jones, who is to be reinstated as tour captain, would face two or three days of self-isolation on arrival at the squad’s base outside Cape Town and would begin training on Monday, but that plan has been revised with July 24 in mind.
“We felt that if he was going to be in contention next week then he needed to have a hit-out and prove 100 per cent that he is fit and ready to go. He needs 20 minutes,” Gatland said.
“If someone comes off early, he’s ready to go. We’ve been looking very closely at a number of videos of the Welsh training sessions he has taken a part in. If the medical team hadn’t passed him fully fit, he wouldn’t be here.”
In another topical selection, Marcus Smith will make his Lions debut as he covers for injury trouble at fly-half.
Finn Russell is rehabilitating a torn Achilles that could end his tour and Dan Biggar was forced to withdraw from the starting XV that fell 17-13 to an experience-packed South Africa ‘A’ team on Wednesday night because of a rolled ankle that is expected to heal quickly.
Owen Farrell faced the shadow Springboks and is rested against the Stormers, leaving Smith as the only option for Saturday to maintain his acceleration through rugby’s ranks.
On June 26 he was helping Harlequins win the Gallagher Premiership title and a week later he made his England debut. Now the 22-year-old playmaker will start amongst the elite of British and Irish rugby.
“There’s no doubt he’s developed over the last 12 months or so and he’s had an outstanding year for Harlequins. He got a couple of caps for England, which is brilliant,” Gatland said.
“He’s a young man, he’s incredibly enthusiastic and a bit of a sponge in terms of soaking up all the knowledge and talking to players within the group.
“There’s no doubt he’s got some real attacking prowess, he’s matured significantly and we’re really excited about him having an opportunity to start.
“We were initially looking at him coming off the bench but the message to him is just to go out there, enjoy the occasion, make the most of it and make a few people sit up and take notice.”
Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw makes his first appearance since the curtain-raiser against Japan after finally overcoming a hamstring complaint, with Stuart Hogg returning from self-isolation to lead the team.
The Lions will face the Stormers knowing that the majority of the Test team has yet to be finalised.
“It’s probably fluid in terms of 60 or 70 per cent. We’ve got some thoughts on where we are,” Gatland said.
“We’ll see some players have a hit-out this weekend and look at some of those combinations.
“There’s a few guys who aren’t involved who we’re pretty happy with, but it’s still an opportunity for the guys on Saturday to go and stake a claim as well.”
Full-back Liam Williams has begun the return to play protocols for concussion after sustaining a head injury against South Africa ‘A’ while prop Wyn Jones needs a few days to rest from a stinger injury.