The Lions will play the Sharks again after winning 54-7 on Wednesday
The British and Irish Lions have been given the green light to play Saturday’s match against the Sharks in Pretoria after the latest round of PCR testing returned negative results.
The player who initially produced a positive on Wednesday has since tested negative twice, allowing all but one of the squad personnel who were isolating at the team hotel in Johannesburg to come into contention for selection once more.
England hooker Jamie George will lead a side containing 13 changes from the XV that thumped the same opponents 54-7 at Emirates Airline Park on Wednesday, with centre Elliot Daly and wing Duhan van der Merwe the survivors.
The teams clash for a second time in four days after the Bulls, Saturday’s original opponents, were forced to pull out because of an outbreak of coronavirus.
Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar were the intended half-backs for the first meeting until they were forced to quarantine but they start at Loftus Versfeld, while Anthony Watson makes his first start of the tour on the right wing.
All of the players who were withdrawn from the original 23 because of the initial two positive tests are present except full-back Stuart Hogg, who faced a late fitness check because of a dead leg.
Warren Gatland has named just two backs in a six-two split on the bench with tour captain Conor Murray and fly-half Finn Russell present.
The Lions will be relieved at the outcome of the latest round of testing, but the unnamed member of the management team who was infected remains in isolation along with his close contacts, comprising one player and three staff.
- In my whole career, Wednesday with the Lions was a day like I have never experienced before
It means the tourists are likely to head to Cape Town on Sunday with just one member of their squad left behind in quarantine.
"It’s obviously been a slightly turbulent week, but we remain determined to keep rolling with the punches," Gatland said.
"In many ways, the challenges we’ve faced this week have strengthened our resolve to do everything we can to overcome the challenges created by Covid.
Congrats to Jamie George who becomes the first Englishman to skipper the @lionsofficial since Phil Vickery against Western Province in 2009. Furthermore he is the first English hooker ever to have captained the famous touring team.
— Stuart Farmer (@Stu_Farmer) July 9, 2021
"The feeling in the camp on Wednesday night was just to give it a crack. I was really proud by how everyone reacted, particularly the matchday squad who would have never prepared for a game like that before.
"Saturday is another opportunity to see how the boys go and for us as coaches to try out a few more combinations ahead of the Test series.
"I have long been an admirer of Jamie’s leadership skills, so I’m delighted to name him skipper.
"We want to pass on thanks to the Sharks boys for fronting up and going again on Saturday. That’s the spirit of rugby and a great chance for them to have another shot at us."
British & Irish Lions team to play Sharks
Comment: As it stands, the Lions have a lifeline – the tour goes on
by Gavin Mairs, in Johannesburg
At last a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered British and Irish Lions. A second negative test for the player who had first returned a positive Covid-19 test finally came through this afternoon, enabling 10 players in total to come out of self-isolation and ensuring that the hastily-arranged rematch against the Sharks can go ahead in Pretoria on Saturday night.
But it has done more than that. If the Lions had been forced to scratch the game, in a week when first the Bulls pulled out with a Covid outbreak and South Africa’s game against Georgia on Friday night was also cancelled, it would have landed a serious blow to the credibility of the entire tour.
Instead, Lions head coach Warren Gatland is able to name all the players who had been forced to miss Wednesday’s game against the Sharks because of implications of a member of staff returning a positive test.
That member of staff was confirmed as positive on Thursday and he will now have to remain in Johannesburg for 10 days to self-isolate, meaning he will not be able to attend the next three games. One player and three other members of staff who have been deemed as close contacts must also isolate for seven days and they must also remain in Johannesburg when the squad departs for Cape Town on Sunday.
Yet, given what is at stake, that outcome must be considered as the ‘least-worst’ option in the wake of the chaos created after the original positive test on Wednesday morning.
Critically, Gatland is able to name a side with 13 changes, which reduces the workload concerns and also enables him to give first starts to players like Anthony Watson and Gareth Davies, and a first start in South Africa for Liam Williams.
It will be a lung-bursting affair for Elliot Daly and Duhan van der Merwe, who are retained for their second start at high altitude in four days, and yet in the unique environment of a Lions tour, both will know it provides a brilliant opportunity to further their claims for a Test place.
Elliot Daly will have another chance to impress on Saturday
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Daly’s form has been transformed since the low-point of his subdued Six Nations campaign, and has flourished at outside centre, which is timely given the concerns about Robbie Henshaw’s fitness.
The quality of the opposition, with the Sharks having to back up twice in four days with much fewer resources, will be far removed from the gladiatorial tour games of previous tours in South Africa. But right now that matters little. The tour goes on.