Records Observer

News for nerds

Warren Gatland is ready to go for broke on Wednesday when he names his first‑Test side to face South Africa, with the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg among some fascinating potential inclusions for the series opener on Saturday. Hogg is poised to start in a team galvanised by the return from injury of Alun Wyn Jones and with a posse of English forwards also in line to be involved.

It is less than a month ago that the 29-year-old Hogg only made the bench for Exeter in their Premiership final against Harlequins but he has now been entrusted with a key role in a game the Lions can ill afford to lose. Barring any 11th-hour changes of heart, it is also understood Jones will feature following a remarkable recovery from a dislocated shoulder, with Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Luke Cowan-Dickie also expected to play a part.

With the props Wyn Jones and Tadhg Furlong having emerged as the Lions’ most reliable scrummagers, Gatland is also considering big calls at scrum-half and No 8 where Ali Price and Jack Conan are hoping to be rewarded for their energetic tour form. Further out there could be some other proactive choices, with Elliot Daly and Duhan van der Merwe among the names discussed at length at the management’s selection meeting.

Gatland has also now decided to bring forward his team announcement by 24 hours to Wednesday morning and is clearly keen to take the game to South Africa from the outset. While the Boks can be relied upon to kick the ball regularly, it would seem Gatland is keen for the Lions to offer a genuine counterattacking threat and operate at a high tempo, which is exactly how Hogg likes to play.

It represents a major turnaround in Hogg’s fortunes, with the former Glasgow full-back having been involved on two previous Lions tours without playing a Test. Last time, in New Zealand, in 2017 he was forced to return home prematurely through injury and it took him a long time to get over it. “In 2017 I felt I was playing some nice rugby and to have it taken away from you was bitterly disappointing,” he said.

“I don’t want this to be a sob story because I’ve missed out on it on the two previous tours but it’s something I have really worked hard towards for a long, long time. This is massive; these are the games that everyone wants to be involved in.”

It is Hogg’s belief that the Lions full-back and wingers will be among the busiest players in the field at Cape Town Stadium this weekend. “I think the back three are going to have a huge say in what happens in this Test series on the basis that South Africa kick the ball on average 35 times in the game and the majority of them are contestable. We are going to have to be on the money in terms of defusing their kicking game and taking that strength of theirs away from them.

“Hopefully there will be opportunities for us and a little bit of space because, speaking on behalf of the rest of the back three, we’re not interested in running up the guts and getting smashed by these big Saffers. We want to try and move them around … we’re going to back our fitness.”

The entire Lions squad also feel that the return of Alun Wyn Jones has improved their chances of overcoming the world champions. “He’s taken a little bit of stick about the fact that he’s ‘Lazarus’ and has came back from absolutely nowhere but to have a guy like that back in camp is absolutely tremendous,” Hogg said.

“We heard snippets that he was going to be back fit and potentially be involved but I didn’t believe it until he walked through the door. He just has this big aura around him … it instills a huge amount of confidence to have a guy like that back in the squad.”

Itoje, who is set to resume in the Test second row after starring for the Lions in New Zealand four years ago, can also scarcely believe Jones’s recovery. “He looks like a 24-year-old. I don’t know what recovery method he is using but somehow even his hair has grown back on the top of his head. He is a man of a lot of experience, he is the tour captain and has that kind of presence about him. It is great to have him back.”