Warren Gatland could not be happier with the star-studded South Africa A team named to take on his British & Irish Lions side as he looks to learn from their 2009 series defeat.
Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber has selected 18 Rugby World Cup winners in the squad for the showdown on Wednesday evening in what will be the 2021 tourists’ first match in Cape Town.
Lukhanyo Am captains a South Africa A outfit that includes Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and Pieter-Steph du Toit as the Springboks look get up to speed after their second warm-up Test against Georgia was cancelled due to COVID-19 outbreaks in both camps.
Murray to lead the Lions in Cape Town
But rather than bulking at the challenge ahead, Gatland welcomed the extraordinary strong opposition as perfect preparation for the Test series against the world champions.
“We’ve seen the team that they’ve announced, and it looks pretty strong. They’ve probably gone with as strong as team as they possibly can given that they still have players unavailable,” he said.
“It’s going to be a good test for us. I spoke to some of the players, some of the forwards about making the most of their opportunities now all the players will have had a couple of games.
“We’ve reiterated how close some of these selections are going to be and there’s going to be some fine margins, it’s about going out there giving your best and making the most of it.
“I probably wasn’t expecting them to be as strong as they are, they are obviously short of games, but I’m absolutely delighted with the team they have put out.
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“That helps our preparation immensely so we’ll kind of get a feel of where we are and what things we need to work on in the ten days leading into the first Test match.
“I’m really pleased with how strong that team is. Even though it’s a South African A game it’s going to be a tough challenge and everything is about winning the Test series.
“I keep referring back to 2009 when we had the first Test, we had played other teams that were under strength in terms of not having the Springboks and we weren’t quite ready.
“We thought we were better prepared than we were so that’s in the back of my mind and the fact I’ve seen that side, it will give a good indication of where both teams are.”
Tour captain Conor Murray will lead the Lions out at Cape Town Stadium for the first time in one of 12 changes made to the Lions team that defeated Cell C Sharks 71-31 at Loftus Versfeld at the weekend.
Anthony Watson, Chris Harris and Dan Biggar are the only players to retain their starting places while England fly-half Owen Farrell is currently unavailable with a slight abdominal strain.
Gatland also revealed that Alun Wyn Jones could still make a sensational return to the Tour after recovering from the dislocated shoulder he suffered against Japan sooner than expected.
“There is a possibility, he is back in training so we’re waiting for the medical reports from him to see what happens with that,” said Gatland when asked about the three-time tourist.
“A few weeks ago we didn’t think there was an option. He’s been back fully training with Wales – he’s training this week with them. I think he’s doing a double session with them.
“We’ll see what the outcome of that is. He has made a remarkable recovery. It would be a boost to the squad having someone of his experience and calibre come back into the squad.”
And with the Test series against the Springboks just on the horizon, Murray added that the players have upped their intensity since arriving in Cape Town ahead of Wednesday’s clash.
“Since we’ve reached Cape Town I think all players are aware that the Test are only around the corner and there have been a few chats among players that things are getting serious,” said the Ireland scrum-half.
“There is going to be a noticeable edge to training in the lead up to Wednesday, and to Saturday’s game, and since we’ve moved here the focus has shifted to the serious side of the Tour.
“I think it’s going to be pretty much a Test match [against South Africa A], if you look at their line-up it’s going to be a really intense game and a trial run for the Tests – almost a fourth Test.
“As I said, the players have switched into a more serious mode since we’ve arrived in Cape Town with our prep and the edge we have in training and seeing their line-up will only sharpen our focus more.
“It’s going to be a real battle and it’s almost like a fourth Test for us, given the line-up they’ve selected. It’s a massive challenge and good prep for what’s to come.”