South Africa will have to dust off the cobwebs and put aside disrupted preparations if they are to underline their status as world champions in Saturday’s first test against the British & Irish Lions but the last chaotic weeks leave them vulnerable.
At the same time, the Lions’ own potential faces a far tougher examination than that of the first five games of their tour, as the test at the Cape Town Stadium promises to be a major step up in physicality and intensity.
It makes for an intriguing start to the three-match series but will also be a test like no other in the rich history of the Lions, played to empty stands amid a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa that has left the country under a severe lockdown.
The absence of thousands of red-clad travelling fans robs the Lions of vital support and has turned the tour into a soulless experience with both teams cloistered away in their hotels, making it as much of a mental trial as a physical battle.
Lions coach Warren Gatland made major calls in selecting his team on Wednesday, picking Alun Wyn Jones to lead the side despite only 27 minutes of playing time since dislocating his shoulder last month, and leaving out the experienced duo of Owen Farrell and Conor Murray.
“In my four tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest test selection I have been involved in,” said Gatland.
“We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations.”
It was a selection made after only one tough match on tour, losing 17-13 to South Africa A just over a week ago in a first psychological blow to the hosts
The Springboks have been scrambling to be ready after 14 players and six management members, including coach and captain, tested positive for COVID-19 his month, which led to their warm-up test against Georgia being cancelled and the players confined to their rooms for a week.
With preparations severely disrupted, coach Jacques Nienaber has taken few chances in selecting 11 of the starting 15 from the World Cup final 20 months ago.
This will be only the second international for the Boks since beating England 32-12 in Yokohama and Nienaber is relying on the old magic to see them through.
“We’ve selected that team will have to find solutions in the game because I think we are going to be tested on multiple fronts,” said Nienaber, back with squad after recovering from a novel coronavirus infection.
Saturday’s test is followed by the next two on successive weekends – all now confirmed for the Cape Town Stadium.