The British and Irish Lions defence coach Steve Tandy has described the "robust" 90-minute plus selection meeting between the coaches on Sunday evening in their Cape Town hotel as one of the toughest selection debates he's ever experienced.
“There are going to be massive decisions. There are going to be a lot of unlucky players, but they represent the Lions. We had an initial selection meeting last night which was a long one, covering all bases. A lot of people have put their hands up.
“It is a great place for us as coaches to be. There will be bitter disappointment but I believe in this squad there is such a tight connection that everyone will be geared up to winning that first Test whether you are in the 23 or not.”
Reflecting further on the meeting, Tandy said: “We were becoming clearer and clearer as we went along. It was one of the toughest things I have ever been involved in because so many people have been putting their best foot forward.”
From talking with Warren Gatland, the defence coach said that whereas on previous Lions tours some players would have played themselves out of consideration, not so this time.
“There are one or two bits to confirm up but the majority is done. We will probably confirm things today and tomorrow and it will be up to Gats when he thinks that is appropriate.”
The Lions arrive at this pivotal week of the tour with a remarkably clean bill of health, all things considered. With Alun Wyn Jones having rejoined the tour and re-assumed the captaincy, of the 41 players now in the squad only Finn Russell has been ruled out of consideration for the first test.
Tandy also confirmed that Robbie Henshaw showed "no ill effects" from his hour-long return after overcoming a hamstring strain, adding: "It is really good to have him back performing; it is really good to have a healthy squad going into the first test."
If picked, Jones will become the first man to play in 10 successive Lions' tests since the Bridgend and Welsh prop Graham Price in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Unbelievable achievement. When we speak about his professionalism on and off the field, you only get to achieve something like that with how you look after yourself. To drive yourself on tour after tour, international after international, is a special achievement. You only have to work with him for a couple of days for it to come out how driven he is to perform and get the team on the same page.
“Having played with him, coached him, he was the captain the whole time I was there at the Ospreys. He was outstanding. The standards he drives, the intensity he drives in training is unbelievable. Then away from the training environment you’ve only got to see through having an injury like that against Japan, 99 per cent of people ain’t coming back and are giving up.
“That tells its own story of Alun Wyn as a person, a professional athlete. He never gives up. And it’s not just that it’s the professional detail that goes into it, the recovery, pre-hab, re-hab. I haven’t seen anyone like him being that professional. The lengths he takes it to are pretty unique.”
For many of those not named in this week’s matchday squad, this could prove a long three weeks with no midweek games henceforth, although it will help the coaches in preparing the side for Saturday’s first test.
“It’s going to be nice for coaches and players to get a routine and get some really good training in. Midweek games are a great experience, but there’s a lot of just topping up of the detail. Over the last two or three weeks you haven’t done a lot of coaching and training work. It’s going to be really pleasing for us not to have that midweek game, it’s focusing more on us now and have a really good prep week leading into the first Test.”
The defeat by the strongly loaded South Africa ‘A’ side was undoubtedly the most relevant warm-up game and provided a reminder, not that it was really needed, of how the Springboks will assuredly seek to generate momentum from early on through their physicality.
Scrum dominance and Handre Pollard's kicking underlined their World Cup final, but it was also varnished with off-the-cuff individualistic brilliance - Lukhanyo Am's no-look offload leading to try by Makazole Mapimpi before Cheslin Kolbe danced through the English defence.
As defence coach, Tandy appreciates there’s an unpredictability within the predictability.
“There’s an element of history with them, looking at how they’ve been. I know they’ve not played much but you look at the A game, the Georgia game, Bulls game, there’s definitely things that are consistent from the World Cup. But they’re a super talented group and you have to expect the unexpected.
“Something could happen around Kolbe, you’ve got Mapimpi to come back into the backline. Anything could happen. And they’ve got a big forward pack. As much as there is a real brutality in and around how South Africa want to play, they’ve got a talented group across the page so there could be a bit of variety to pop in at some point.”