Alun Wyn Jones will bring his British & Irish Lions journey full circle when he returns to South Africa 12 years after first facing the Springboks, this time as captain.
A leader in every sense of the word, Warren Gatland has called upon the man who was his trusted lieutenant for Wales for so many years to marshal the tourists to a series victory.
Jones will follow in the illustrious footsteps of fellow locks Willie John McBride in 1974, Martin Johnson in 1997 and Paul O’Connell in 2009 by captaining the Lions in South Africa.
The honour becomes the latest accomplishment to be added to one of the most remarkable CVs in world rugby, cementing Jones’ place as one of the all-time greats of the game.
South Africa will be his fourth Lions Tour in a row while he already has nine consecutive Test appearances to his name, a feat that hammers home his unparalleled longevity.
But it will not be the first time Jones has led the Lions, with the towering lock captaining the tourists in the decisive third Test win in Sydney against the Wallabies in 2013.
And having driven Wales to their sixth Six Nations title since 2005 earlier this year, it’s not hard to see why Gatland called the decision to name Jones as his skipper “relatively easy”.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with him for a number of years, he was the only player in the Welsh squad who was there before me, so he’s had a huge amount of experience,” he said.
“I think the last few years he’s done an incredible job in terms of leading Wales. He has captained a Lions team in the third Test in 2013, which was a pretty good performance.
“For me, picking someone who comes from a team that’s won the Six Nations, who has respect, has been there and done that, it was a relatively easy decision.”
But like Gatland, Jones is not a man who rests on his laurels.
You certainly don’t achieve the numbers he has over his 15-year international career without possessing a relentless thirst to improve, a refusal to ever settle for second best.
Not only does he hold the all-time record of 157 Test appearances, including those nine caps for the Lions, Jones has won Six Nations titles with Wales in three different decades.
The 2008 title provided his first, 2012, 2013 and 2019 comprised a 2010s triple-header and this year ensured the 2020s are now ticked off. Three of those were also Grand Slams.
Yet while Jones’ achievements speak for themselves, Gatland has made it clear to his skipper that he will have to fight for his Test place – a challenge he accepted without question.
“When I rang him and asked him, he was pretty honoured to be able to accept it,” Gatland added.
“But there’s also the caveat and the conversation that, ‘Your form needs to be good enough to be selected in the Test side’ and there’s no one better to have that conversation with than Alun Wyn.
“He fully understands how much competition there is in that second row and that if someone is playing better than him, he could be on the bench or someone else might captain the Test series.
“We’re going to need other leaders. We’re going to need someone else to captain games that he’s not involved in, but I think he thoroughly deserves it.
“He’s a player that leads from the front, sets a great example in training, he has a huge amount of respect, he’s been there done that, a world record-holder in terms of Test caps.”
Jones was already an established player with 20-odd caps for Wales by the time Gatland took the helm at Principality Stadium, having made his debut against Argentina in 2006.
Ospreys’ leading appearance holder, Jones became Wales’ 129th captain when he led his country against Italy in the 2009 Six Nations before being selected for that year’s Lions Tour.
He started the first Test against the Springboks, coming off the bench in the other two, as the tourists were beaten 2-1 in one of the most physical series in Lions’ history.
Back-to-back Six Nations titles preceded Jones’ second Lions Tour to Australia in 2013, where he started all three of the Tests as the tourists won their first series in 16 years.
Jones captained the side in the absence of Sam Warburton in third Test, making him the first substitute skipper to lead the Lions to victory in the final match of a series since 1904.
He brought up his century of Test appearances against none other than South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup while his 100th Wales cap arrived against New Zealand in 2016.
Selected for his third Lions Tour a year later in 2017, Jones formed a formidable partnership with Maro Itoje and started all three Tests as the visitors held the All Blacks to a series draw.
A third Grand Slam with Wales in 2019 confirmed his place in the pantheon of Wales legends, alongside the likes of Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones.
He also led Wales to the 2021 Six Nations title despite a knee injury sidelining him for two months around the turn of the year, demonstrating the 35-year-old’s incredible resilience.
Now a fourth Lions Tour awaits the great man, who could equal fellow Wales and Lions legend Graham Price’s record of 12 consecutive Test appearances in South Africa.
“It’s great recognition for someone who is going to go on his fourth Lions Tour,” said Gatland.
“He should be really proud of this selection.”