South Africa vs British & Irish Lions first Test talking points: Team selection, Covid disruption and more
South Africa vs Lions 1st Test, Saturday, live on Sky Sports Action/Lions & Main Event from 3.30pm; below, we look at the Lions' surprising selection calls in backs and forwards; the Springboks' selection of players after Covid; Duhan van der Merwe's task for the Lions on the left wing.
Last Updated: 24/07/21 4:00pm
We look through some of the major talking points ahead of the British and Irish Lions' first Test vs South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday, live on Sky Sports...
A Lions XV filled with surprises
Very few people, if any, waiting to cheer on the Lions could have predicted head coach Warren Gatland's squad for the first Test vs the Springboks.
Two of the form players on tour in wing Josh Adams and blindside flanker Tadhg Beirne fail to start, with Adams not even in the squad of 23 - Duhan van der Merwe instead grabbing a place on the left wing.
Elliot Daly, who has struggled for form to a huge extent for England over the last year, starts at 13 for just the second time in his Test career and first time in five years. Stuart Hogg also edges out Liam Williams to start at full-back.
Alun Wyn Jones, who dislocated his shoulder four weeks ago, returns to start at lock on the back of just 27 minutes vs the Stormers, while his replacement tour skipper in Conor Murray has been dropped to the bench for Scotland's Ali Price.
Taulupe Faletau, a tried and tested favourite of Gatland's, fails to make the squad too, with Jack Conan starting at No 8 and Hamish Watson the bench cover.
All in all, the XV is a bit of a head-scratcher.
"He's [Jones] made a brilliant recovery to make himself available," Gatland said. "There was a lot of discussion about whether we start him on the bench, but when we decided to go with Price at [number] nine, we needed his experience and leadership in the second row.
"We have been impressed with him [Price] in terms of the way he has played, his running game against the Stormers was very good, he had nice variations and is getting the ball away quickly.
"But it is not just about the starting XV. We want to get the right experience off the bench, so guys like (Owen) Farrell and Murray will have the chance to come on and hopefully close out the game for us."
At full-back, Hogg will earn his first Lions cap on his third tour having been unlucky with injury in the past and also having faced Covid-19 isolation in South Africa this time round.
"Just his [Hogg's] experience, he has captained in a couple of matches on tour. It was a toss of a coin between him and Liam Williams, it could have gone either way, but we wanted to give Stuart the opportunity. Hopefully he will take his chance."
Gatland admitted there was disappointment in the group among those who had not made the cut, and there were some big hits in training after the team was announced to the players.
"I expected guys to be disappointed and they should be," he added. "We had a tasty training session yesterday with a bit of niggle and that is exactly what I want.
"It was the hardest selection meeting I have been involved in. I asked the [assistant] coaches to come with their match 23s, and we were all different. We all had to compromise and debate combinations and selections.
"Not one of the coaches got the 23 they came along to the meeting with."
How fit will the Springboks prove after Covid disruptions?
South Africa will have to dust off the cobwebs and put aside disrupted preparations if they are to underline their status as world champions in Saturday's first Test, but the chaotic last few weeks would appear to leave them vulnerable.
The Springboks have been scrambling to be ready after 14 players and six management members, including coach Jacques Nienaber and captain Siya Kolisi, tested positive for Covid-19 this month, which led to their second warm-up Test against Georgia being cancelled and the players confined to their rooms for a week.
With preparations severely disrupted, Nienaber has taken few chances in selecting 11 of the starting 15 from the World Cup final 20 months ago.
However, five of the starters in Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Bongi Mbonambi and Ox Nche, plus Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager and Herschel Jantjies on the bench, have tested positive for Covid and barely played or trained.
This will also be only the second international for the Boks since beating England 32-12 in the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama and Nienaber is relying on old magic to see them through.
"We have selected the team who will have to find solutions in the game because I think we are going to be tested on multiple fronts," said Nienaber, back with the squad after recovering from a coronavirus infection.
It all makes for an intriguing start to the three-match series but will also be a Test like no other in the rich history of the Lions, played to empty stands amid a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa that has left the country under a severe lockdown.
How will Duhan van der Merwe cope with Cheslin Kolbe and a likely hostile reception?
Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe has been braced for sledging from South Africa as Gatland has admitted leaving Josh Adams out of the Lions team for Saturday's first Test was a difficult decision.
One of the most contentious calls of the surprise XV announced by Gatland for the Cape Town Stadium showdown sees Van der Merwe edge Adams for the second wing spot alongside Anthony Watson.
While Van der Merwe has used his power and footwork to torment defences throughout the tour, Adams' stunning haul of eight tries was thought to have cemented his place in the starting XV.
Now the rivals for the left wing face different challenges - Van der Merwe coping with the backlash awaiting him against the world champions and Adams recovering from the disappointment of being overlooked.
Van der Merwe was born and raised in South Africa and played twice for the Junior Springboks in 2014 but qualified for Scotland on residency grounds having joined Edinburgh three years later.
The bulldozing 26-year-old's switch of allegiance has seen him targeted by trolls on social media and Gatland insists he can expect a similar reaction on the pitch on Saturday.
"It's a challenge for him. I've spoken to him about what's coming on the weekend and he's fully aware," Gatland said.
"I presume every time he touches the ball, they'll be trying to hit him with everything they've got and there will probably be some verbals as well. So he's well aware of what's at stake and he's been incredibly relaxed.
"Duhan has scored some really good tries on this tour and has beaten a lot of defenders and brought some physicality."
A further challenge awaits in the sense that Van Der Merwe's opposite man down South Africa's right will be the outstanding Cheslin Kolbe.
⚡️ Are you Team Cheslin?— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) July 22, 2021
💥 Or do you back the firepower of Duhan van der Merwe?
This one's going to be a fascinating First Test head-to-head, as @lionsofficial take on the @Springboks in Cape Town 🇿🇦🦁
Join us on Saturday 👉 @SkySports from 3pm 📺 pic.twitter.com/04ytau0g9j
The Toulouse man is capable of stepping the best of defenders, and with Van der Merwe's defensive credentials hardly the strongest, he could be in for a long night.
Team News for first Test
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk; 1 Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi (c), 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 Lions have named their team to face South Africa in the first Test, and Alun Wyn Jones will start as captain! 🦁🏉— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) July 21, 2021
British and 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 Rory Sutherland, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tadhg Beirne, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Liam Williams.