The British and Irish Lions kick off their tour to South Africa with a match against namesakes the Sigma Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Emirates Airline Park outfit the Lions – who recently played in the PRO14 Rainbow Cup and will be part of the United Rugby Championship when it launches next season – are the opponents for the first of five warm-up matches on South African soil ahead of a three-Test series against the Springboks.
Warren Gatland’s men eased to a 28-10 victory over Japan at Murrayfield before jetting off to the southern hemisphere, although the result came at the cost of tour-ending injuries to captain Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric.
Saturday’s clash will give Gatland an opportunity to see other members of his squad in action as preparations continue for the first Test on July 24.
Here, we take a closer look at this weekend’s opponents.
The Lions – along with the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls – were formerly part of Super Rugby and reached three consecutive finals from 2016 to 2018, losing all three. All South African teams were withdrawn from the competition in 2020 with a view to joining an expanded PRO14, and the formation of the URC – consisting of the four South African sides alongside the existing 12 PRO14 teams – was announced last month, following the Lions’ participation in the Rainbow Cup. The Lions, who will be known as the Sigma Lions for the first time this weekend following the announcement of a new sponsorship deal, were a late addition to the tour schedule, replacing the SA Invitational side on the itinerary.
The Lions will be considered the weakest of the teams the tourists will face over the coming weeks after they finished bottom of the pile in the South African section of the Rainbow Cup. They managed only one victory from their five matches, although that solitary win came against the table-topping Bulls. That result came a week after the Lions were cruelly denied victory by a late Tim Swiel penalty in a 10-try 39-37 home defeat to the Stormers.
Head coach Ivan Van Rooyen joined the Golden Lions Rugby Union in 2009, working with the junior sides and Vodacom Cup team until 2011. He became head of strength and conditioning in 2012 and, following a successful couple of seasons as head coach of the Currie Cup team, he was promoted to his current role in 2019. Speaking ahead of the match Van Rooyen said: “This is such a big opportunity for every player involved. There is such a small group of guys who will have the chance to play against players of this calibre in their lifetime, and I hope that they truly take a moment to take it in and savour the enormity of the moment.”
The Lions have contributed only one player to the Springboks squad for the upcoming Test series – uncapped centre Wandisile Simelane. Fly-half Jordan Hendrikse, 20, enjoyed a breakthrough campaign during the Rainbow Cup, while 22-year-old flanker Vincent Tshituka has been tipped as a future Bok. Both men start on Saturday, while Ruan Dreyer and Jamba Ulengo are the only members of the starting XV to have made senior international appearances, although they boast only five caps between them.