Will there be a more forensically analysed 20 minutes in the British and Irish Lions warm-ups than the run-out of Alun Wyn Jones against the Stormers tomorrow evening (5.00pm)?
A mere 21 days on from dislocating his shoulder against Japan in Murrayfield, the tour skipper makes his return to action from the bench in Cape Town.
The injury was severe enough that the game’s most-capped player was originally left at home when the Lions departed for South Africa but, encouraged by reports of his training level with Wales in the interim, he arrived at the team hotel on Thursday and was named in the side for tomorrow evening a few hours later.
Gatland has, of course, never been shy about rolling the dice in his coaching life and this gamble on the readiness of his 35-year-old skipper to face perhaps the most physical rugby team on earth is in-keeping with the pattern of an uber-successful career.
Just how Jones comes through this cameo though will have fascinating repercussions for a number of the decisions Gatland and his staff will be making in the days to come.
First and foremost is Jones’ own selection. The Ospreys man hasn’t flown halfway across the world to spend three weeks looking at the four walls of a hotel room but Gatland was quick to stress on Wednesday evening that his return to the trip did make his return to the side a formality.
“He’s a man of immeasurable experience, he is the most-capped player in the history of rugby. He is going to add his experience and clout,” said his fellow lock Maro Itoje in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to South Africa ‘A’. “To be honest I want the competition, I want the best team available and I want to compete.
“Those kind of decisions are left to the man who gets paid the big bucks.”
Itoje, it should be noted, will either be partnering Jones or someone else in the Lions second-row. As much as Gatland is prone to spring a surprise, it’s inconceivable that the England and Saracens man won’t be in the side named next Thursday.
A physically gifted athlete primed to match even the most sizeable of Springboks in the trenches, against South Africa ‘A’ he looked to be finding the sort of form that has seen him lauded as one of the world’s best players in recent years.
Instead, Jones’ ascension back to the Test side would require one of Iain Henderson, Adam Beard and Jonny Hill to be edged out.
The Ulsterman, who was superb in New Zealand for Gatland four years ago despite coming up just short of cracking the Test ‘23’, feels like the clubhouse leader at present. Having impressed so far, the man who has played more minutes on tour than any other forward surely felt primed for the challenge of Eben Etzebeth and co.
In a rich vein of form through the latter part of 2020 and into 2021, at 29-years-old he is perhaps playing his best rugby. He has, however, already finished stating his case given he’ll not feature tonight.
And with Jones back in the frame, as well as the ability of both Tadhg Beirne and Courtney Lawes to provide bench cover should they fail to make the starting back-row, the Lions engine room suddenly looks like one of the more competitive areas of selection, especially considering the feeling that the full benefit of Jones’ experience and leadership would be felt as a starter rather than replacement.
Beard was something of a surprise selection to replace his Welsh colleague on tour initially given the likes of Jonny Gray and James Ryan were still on the outside looking in, but his no frills play has impressed out in South Africa where his maul defence has loomed large.
Exeter’s Hill, too, has done little wrong and will view today’s game as one last opportunity to press his own cause too.
In a similar boat will be Ali Price. With Jones being restored to the captaincy, his return to the fold has prompted debate in some quarters over the probability of Conor Murray maintaining his hold over the nine jersey.
Having never captained Ireland, Murray’s seeming status as a sure starter appeared to be a factor when he temporarily succeeded Jones as skipper. Having not been at his best midweek though, if Price should impress then the chatter will intensify.
Providing Jones comes through unscathed, the challenge of picking his Test side is about to get even more difficult for Gatland.