It takes a lot to surprise Ken Owens – an experienced player who has been there, done it and got the t-shirt many times for club, country and The British & Irish Lions.
So while many observers were taken aback by the heavyweight South Africa A side named to take on the tourists in Cape Town, the Wales hooker took the news in his stride.
Also a tourist in 2017, Owens was a replacement four years ago when the Lions defeated New Zealand Maori 32-10 in what was considered a dry run for the Test series.
Gatland welcomes test posed by South Africa A
And ahead of the match billed as an unofficial fourth Test, the 34-year-old stressed that the men in red had always anticipated this contest would provide a significant step up in level.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” he said. “It’s a very strong side but we always knew that South Africa A was always going to be one of the biggest challenges outside the Test series.
“So for us we’ve been building nicely with some good wins, especially against Japan and then at altitude against the Lions and the two games against the Sharks.
“The way we’ve been building, we’ve been going in the right direction so it’s good to have this step up in intensity and level which we’re going to expect on Wednesday night.
“For us it’s the perfect time for a challenge like South Africa A and while it is a very strong team, it’s one we’re looking forward to.
“If you look at the schedule and you look back four years ago when the Lions played the Maori All Blacks, that was like the unofficial fourth Test – and you get one on every Tour.
“South Africa A was always going to be that match on this Tour, the extra unofficial Test match, so for us we were expecting a strong team to be picked whether Covid or pre-Covid.
Preview: South Africa A v The British & Irish Lions
“We haven’t been surprised by it at all, we’re just looking forward to that step up in intensity which we’re going to find but it’s something we’re going to need ten days out from the Tests.”
The Lions have been in formidable form since landing in South Africa, defeating the Sigma Lions before securing back-to-back victories over the Cell C Sharks to kick off the 2021 Tour.
All three of those results ended in the tourists scoring 50-plus points but South Africa A squad featuring 18 Rugby World Cup winners will provide a much sterner test.
Yet The Sheriff believes the match-up could not come at a better time for the tourists as the squad compiled of the best players from the four home nations continue to gel together.
“We always knew South Africa A was going to be a huge challenge on this Tour. Yes, it’s a very strong team but we’ve got a very strong team out and it’s a great test for us,” he continued.
“Ten days out from the first Test, we can see where we are at, what we need to brush up on and where we are moving into this Test series. We’re still learning.
“Everything we do in training, every match we play, everything is geared up to the Test series and there are still new combinations, people playing with other for the first or second time.
Gallery: Captain’s Run in Cape Town
“We’re learning on the run and it’s definitely a huge step up, the intensity is going to be a step up, the collisions, the physicality and everything – it’s something we’re looking forward to.
“If there is anything we pick up that we need to improve on or need to work on or brush up then it’s still a way out from the Test series and we can see where we’re really at.”
For Lion #829 Owens, this will only be his first start in South Africa having come on as a replacement in both games against the Sharks after starting the pre-Tour win over Japan.
But just as was the case with ‘The Ultimate Lion’ Jason Leonard during the famous 1997 Tour, Owens is ready to whatever is needed for the cause – even if that means sitting on the bench.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” he said. “There’s obviously been a rotation which we all knew about and I was chuffed to get a start up in Edinburgh, enjoyed that run out against Japan.
“I’ve had plenty of game time off the bench, especially at altitude which was fun, not quite getting your second wind, but I’m just looking forward to getting another opportunity to start.
“It’s the nature of the beast [not always starting]. In whatever capacity you’re asked and whatever you’re asked to do on a Lions Tour you do as that’s what you’ve got to do to be successful.
“For me it’s always been my motto that I’m a team man first. I was on the bench a long time at the start of my international career and I enjoyed that role as I got an opportunity to put on the jersey.
“I have been on the bench twice on this Tour so far, supporting the boys and doing whatever is asked of me, everybody buys into whatever is asked of them on a Lions Tour.”