Warren Gatland admitted the selection meeting for The British & Irish Lions team to face the Springboks in the first Test was the hardest he’s ever experienced as a coach.
Tour captain Alun Wyn Jones will lead a team in Cape Town which features three Scottish players for the first time since 1997 as the tourists look to avenge their 2009 series defeat.
Scrum-half Ali Price, winger Duhan van der Merwe and fullback Stuart Hogg have all been named in the starting XV while Ireland’s Jack Conan has been selected at No.8.
Lions team to face Springboks in first Test
Ahead of his third consecutive series as head coach, Gatland revealed there was a long debate between the coaches before they finally decided on the matchday 23.
“We picked what we thought was the best team for the weekend. We spent over an hour and a half on selection, it was the hardest selection meeting I’ve ever been in,” said Gatland.
“I asked the coaches to come along with their 23s and we were all different. We all had to compromise and debate positions and selections, that’s the way it should be.
“I know a lot of people think it’s the team that I select. It’s never been the way whether with Wales or the Lions. As coaches, it’s important we all have an input into the make-up of the squad.
“It’s the way I have always done things and not one of the coaches got the 23 they had come along to the meeting with, and I think that is a credit to the players.
“Even as coaches we were all thinking about different permutations and combinations and what the make-up of the 23 looked like. There were some long discussions.
“Just to give you an idea, in the forward pack we had four of the same eight and in the backline, we only had three of the same seven between the five of us.
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“It just goes to show how tough it was in terms of that selection but as I said, it’s a great place to be in because there’s so many players putting their hands up and making it difficult for us.”
One of the players who will earn his first Test cap in the famous red jersey is Ali Price, who has been given the nod at No.9 over three-time tourist Conor Murray for the curtain-raiser.
Price made his Lions debut against Japan before starting three of the five 2021 Tour matches so far, with his superb display in the 49-3 win over Stormers sealing his starting role.
“We have been really impressed with him in terms of his running game against the Stormers, some nice variation, he was getting the ball away quickly,” said Gatland.
“In saying that, it’s not just about the starting XV and looking at South Africa and particularly up front and their bench, we wanted to make sure that the balance was right.
“We know how important our bench is going to be and to have experienced players coming off the bench, so you have the quality of players like Conor Murray, Liam Williams and Owen Farrell.
“They are disappointed not to be involved but having that experience, they have the chance to come on and hopefully change the game out for us so we’re happy with the depth of our bench.”
Meanwhile, Tour skipper Jones will lead the Lions having recovered from a dislocated shoulder sustained in the tourists’ 28-10 win over Japan at Murrayfield Stadium just 24 days ago.
It will be Jones’ tenth successive Test cap for the Lions as he joins an exclusive club of tourists who have made ten or more Test appearances – and Gatland hailed his captain’s worth ethic.
“It’s great that he’s been able to make a brilliant recovery to make himself available again,” he said of Jones, who is the first Lion to play ten Tests for the touring side in the professional era.
“He had a run out the other day and had some time on the pitch and it’s fantastic. There were a lot of discussions about whether we started him on the bench again and brought him off.
“But when the decision was made that we were going to go with Ali Price instead of Conor Murray at No.9, we felt we needed his leadership and experience in the second row.
“To play ten Tests, it just shows what he’s been as a player and not just for Alun Wyn but for the whole squad, being out here and playing for the Lions means a huge amount to them.
“To see someone like him desperate to get back into rehab and want to be out here to represent the Lions again, it just shows a lot about him as a person and what the Lions means to him.”
Gatland also paid tribute to the players who missed out on selection for the opening Test, praising their attitude in training as they help the matchday squad prepare for the Springboks.
“I expect the guys who have missed out to be disappointed. They should be disappointed about missing out on selection but we have spoken about it’s not just about the 23,” he said.
“It’s about the whole squad and everyone has been putting up their hands and we’ve been pleased with the form of a lot of players in the squad and it’s how they now respond.
“It’s their responsibility in helping the Test side for Saturday and I must say they have been absolutely brilliant in the last few training sessions, no one has taken a backward step.
“We had a pretty tasty training session yesterday, plenty of niggle, and it was exactly what we wanted and I take my hat off to the guys helping the Test team – they really fronted up.”