Alun Wyn Jones looks set to lead Lions in first Test against South Africa

Wales secondrow set for game time off the bench against the Stormers on Saturday

Alun Wyn Jones and Rónan Kelleher arrive to the British & Irish Lions base in South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Alun Wyn Jones and Rónan Kelleher arrive to the British & Irish Lions base in South Africa. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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It’s a measure of the esteem in which Warren Gatland holds Alun Wyn Jones that not only has the 35-year-old been speedily welcomed back into the Lions fold but following his arrival on Thursday, presumably by business class, he has been fast-tracked into the matchday squad to face the Stormers on Saturday (kick-off 5pm Irish time).

Gatland had said on Wednesday that Jones would have to observe a few days of isolation due to Covid protocols before returning to training on Monday, but now he will play some part off the bench against the Stormers in order to put himself into contention for the first Test.

“It was just making sure that he came in and has been tested for the Covid tests, which were negative,” Gatland explained on foot of naming the matchday 23 for the Stormers game.

“We just needed to keep on it and make sure that was done and make sure they [Jones and Rónan Kelleher] got here safely and were fit. Then we just looked at the options, spoke to Alun Wyn, spoke to the medical team about the ability to put him on the bench and we decided to do that.

“We felt that if he was going to be in contention next week then he needed a have a hit out and prove 100 per cent that he was fit and ready to go.”

True to type, Conor Murray is at ease with Gatland’s decision to restore Jones to his role as tour captain after the Irish scrumhalf was appointed in place of the Welshman.

“I want to win a Test series with the Lions and having the best men available to do that is what I want,” said Murray. “I would welcome Al back absolutely. He’s going to add an awful lot of experience, an awful lot of leadership and he’s a top player too. So it’s not an issue for me, I’m a player who wants to win the Test series.”

If nothing else, Murray will always have the memory of leading out the Lions for the first time against the South Africa A side – “a really proud night for me and my family” – albeit he would have preferred a win.

While Jones will probably captain the Lions in the first Test, Gatland also said it’s by no means a foregone conclusion. Conceivably, like his Munster team-mate Peter O’Mahony in the first Test four years ago, Murray could yet captain the Lions on Saturday week.

It’s also a measure of the way the Lions coaches have had to make decisions on the hoof that they’ve had to revise their plans for Marcus Smith as well.

The 22-year-old only landed last Monday and had been earmarked for a place on the bench against the Stormers. But, on cramming his third different playbook in four weeks, Smith has been pitched into the starting team.

Johnny Sexton was overlooked due to questions about his “durability” and ironically such have been the various issues afflicting the three chosen outhalves for the third game running there is no specialist cover on the bench. Instead, Stuart Hogg will do so from fullback.

Hogg, skipper for this game, won’t want that to happen too soon, if any time at all. Hogg hasn’t been a lucky Lion. Injury ended his tour in New Zealand prematurely and he had to withdraw from the second tour game against the Sharks and remain in isolation in Johannesburg as a close contact of a positive Covid case.

Similarly, Robbie Henshaw hasn’t played since the pre-tour win over Japan in Murrayfield due to a hamstring injury but Gatland has spoken effusively of the Irish centre in carefully managing his return.

Interestingly though, whereas Henshaw started at 13 against Japan, he’s moved to 12 against the Stormers in a new partnership with Elliot Daly, while Gatland maintained a 10-12 combination of Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell is still an option.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to play those two together, the way things have gone. I think the first thing is we want to see is how our midfield combination with Robbie and Elliot goes. That’s the first time they’ll have gone together. Hopefully Robbie is fit and has an impact on the game.

“We’ve got other options and definitely that 10-12 combination; with Owen’s experience he can easily fit in to that 12 position. It is not something that because we haven’t used it, we wouldn’t potentially consider.”

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (v Stormers, Cape Town Stadium, Saturday, kick-off 5pm Irish time): Stuart Hogg, capt (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Marcus Smith (Harlequins, England), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland); Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England); Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh, Scotland), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland).

Replacements: Jamie George (Saracens, England), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Chris Harris (Gloucester, Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester, Wales).

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