Russell alone absent as Lions prepare for first Test
The British and Irish Lions begin preparations for Saturday’s crucial first Test against South Africa in a strong position, with only Finn Russell ruled out of the collision at the Cape Town Stadium.
The starting XV and bench to face the Springboks is set to be finalized following a selection meeting on Sunday which lasted almost two hours and the few outstanding appeals will be made by the end of Monday.
Warren Gatland’s options are enhanced by the near-perfect health record to have blessed the Lions six games into their tour, leaving Achilles injury victim Russell as the only player unavailable.
Full-back Liam Williams begins the final stage of return-to-play protocols for concussion on Monday and, if successful, will return to training the following morning.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones and center Robbie Henshaw returned unscathed from their respective shoulder and hamstring injuries in Saturday’s rout of the Stormers to stay in contention for the Test.
Defense coach Steve Tandy admits there will be some unhappy players when Gatland announces the squad, but stresses the series spans three Tests so more opportunities will arise.
“There are going to be massive decisions. There are going to be a lot of unlucky players,” Tandy said.
“We had a first selection meeting last night (Sunday) which was long, covering all the bases, as a lot of people raised their hands. It’s a great place for us as coaches.
“We were becoming more and more clear as we went on, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been involved in because so many people tried their best.
“On other tours people may have played off Test match 23, when all of our boys really raised their hands in and around the performances and the way they trained.
“There will be bitter disappointment, but I believe in this team there is such a close bond that everyone will be ready to win that first test, whether you are in the 23rd or not.
“You want to choose from a healthy group and in a group where eventually everyone raises their hands for this selection because it shows the depth of the team.
“During the three tests, people will probably come in and out of the team and we will need that depth throughout the series.”
Only once before have the Lions bounced back from a loss in the first Test to win the series – Finlay Calder’s Class of 1989 hold that accolade – to leave Gatland’s men fully aware of the stakes this weekend.
A procession against modest provincial opposition now gives way to the commercial end of the tour and stalwart Tadhg Furlong savors what awaits him at the Cape Town Stadium.
“It’s big boy rugby, on a big stage. You can feel it everywhere. That means a lot – rugby players in general rise to these occasions, with that internal urge to do well “, said Furlong.
“It’s nervous. Everyone’s a little nervous. We’re in the heat of the tour now and it means a lot to people, so everyone’s waiting to see how it goes – if you’re in or out of the team.
“It means so much to me, not making it personal, but I’ve had a tough year with injuries etc.
“But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel where you try to go on a Lions tour and do something special with that group of players.”