Jamie George tonight becomes first England hooker ever to captain Lions (Image: PA)
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Warren Gatland has vowed his Lions will continue to “roll with the punches” to avoid the tour falling victim to a Covid knockout.
Today’s game was only given the go-ahead yesterday afternoon after tests came back negative on the players and staff who dodged the coronavirus bullet on Wednesday.
The threat has far from gone, however, with one member of the management having tested positive 48 hours earlier and four close contacts, one of them a player, forced to isolate.
The Lions at least have a game in Pretoria this evening to distract them from their myriad off-field worries.
“It’s obviously been a slightly turbulent week, but we remain determined to keep rolling with the punches,” said Gatland, after asking England star Jamie George to captain the side against Sharks.
Gatland: “It’s obviously been a slightly turbulent week"
(Image: Getty Images)
“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.
“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 match day 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.”
Maro Itoje returns as one of 13 changes to starting line-up
(Image: Getty Images)
It is unlikely to be anything other than a glorified training run given the Sharks’ first team were thrashed 54-7 on Wednesday and only four of them are back for more.
The Lions change all but Elliot Daly and Duhan Van der Merwe but this line-up looks every bit as solid.
The all-new pack features Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong and Hamish Watson, so outstanding in the opener a week ago. Dan Biggar, the pick of the fly-halves thus far, reclaims the No.10 jersey.
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“We want to pass on thanks to the Sharks boys for fronting up and going again,” said Gatland. “That’s the spirit of rugby, and a great chance for them to have another shot at us.”
That is one way of looking at it, and not one widely shared given the gulf in class between the two teams.
With only two games after this to finalise their Test line-up the Lions cannot afford to go anything less than full bore at their Durban-based opponents.
George: “I just feel whatever hostility comes our way it manages to bring the group closer together"
(Image: Getty Images)
George, fresh from a season of playing second division mis-matches for Saracens, will demand his Lions are every bit as merciless.
“I just feel whatever hostility comes our way it manages to bring the group closer together," said the hooker. "You saw that in the way the guys on Wednesday night fronted up."
The Lions head to Cape Town tomorrow unsure of whether they will be facing South Africa A or the Stormers on Wednesday.
Gatland: "The way we’ve been working and training, playing three Tests at sea level is a real positive for us"
But Gatland believes a decision has been reached to play ALL three Tests in Cape Town – canning the original plan to play the last two back up at altitude.
A delighted Gatland said: "The way we’ve been working and training, playing three Tests at sea level is a real positive for us."
Sharks: Volmink; Potgieter, Kok, Koster, Abrahams; Cronje, Hendrikse; Buthelezi (capt), Gumede, Richardson; Hugo, Roux Roets; Herbst, Van Vuuren, Mchunu.
British and Irish Lions: L Williams, A Watson, Daly, Harris, Van der Merwe; Biggar, Davies; Sutherland, George (capt), Furlong, Itoje, Hill, Beirne, H Watson, Conan.
Replacements: Owens, Jones, Sinckler, Lawes, Simmonds, Curry, Murray, Russell.