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The big talking points ahead of Lions' clash with South Africa

The big talking points ahead of Lions' clash with South Africa
© Reuters
Only once before have the Lions come back from defeat in the first Test to win the series.

The British and Irish Lions series against South Africa begins in Cape Town on Saturday to end months of uncertainty over whether it would actually take place due to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, the PA news agency looks at five talking points ahead of the match.

TMO  on trial

South African Marius Jonker is a controversial appointment as TMO for the Test series
South African Marius Jonker is a controversial appointment as TMO for the Test series (David Davies/PA)

Controversy has marred the build-up to the first Test after Marius Jonker, a South African, was appointed as television match official for all three Tests. World Rugby has been criticised for failing to find a better alternative after New Zealand's Brendon Pickerill was forced to pull out because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, and Warren Gatland is rightly furious that an essential principle in international sport – neutral officiating – has been violated. Whether right or wrong, a contentious decision by Jonker could cause uproar.

First Test imperative

Finlay Calder led the 1989 Lions to victory over Australia - the only time they have come from behind to win a Test series
Finlay Calder led the 1989 Lions to victory over Australia – the only time they have come from behind to win a Test series (Tim Ockenden/PA)

A glance through the history books underlines the importance of Saturday's collision. Only once before have the Lions come back from defeat in the first Test to win the series and that was Finlay Calder's vintage of 1989. Four years ago they came from behind to draw with New Zealand, but it is fiendishly difficult to rebuild from a losing position. Both teams are well aware of what a victory in the opening instalment will mean, raising the stakes for the clash.

How ready are the Boks?

South Africa are the world champions but have played only Test since
South Africa are the world champions but have played only one Test since winning the 2019 World Cup (PA)

So many imponderables cling to South Africa as they enter the first Test. It will be only their second international since lifting the 2019 World Cup and no-one really knows what shape they will be in. Concerns over their rustiness aside, they have a number of players including captain Siya Kolisi and fly-half Handre Pollard who have just recovered from coronavirus and were forced to spend 10 days in self-isolation. In addition Pollard, a key figure, has endured an injury-disrupted season. The Springboks have faced major disruption and their response will be intriguing.

Gatland rolls the dice

When details of the Lions team emerged before the official announcement, some wondered if it was a red herring. Jack Conan, Ali Price, Elliot Daly, Duhan Van Der Merwe and Stuart Hogg are all bold selections by Gatland, who has rolled the dice by opting for attacking players to create and finish tries. Each comes with risks attached yet at the same time is capable of carving up a Springboks side that was inactive for over 18 months. Gatland is an accomplished selector with a contrarian streak and his long track record of getting the big calls right will be tested again.

Locks as war

Maro Itoje will set the physical tone for the Lions against South Africa
Maro Itoje will set the physical tone for the Lions against South Africa (Steve Haag/PA)

In a match teeming with heavyweight collisions, it is the battle between second rows Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth that will provide the greatest fireworks. Itoje will set the physical tone for the Lions, acting as a destroyer of the Springboks in the tight and at the breakdown. Etzebeth is less destructive on opposition ball, but is a snarling aggressor who serves as South Africa's enforcer. It is a contest between two world class operators that will underpin the entire series.

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British and Irish Lions' Robbie Henshaw celebrates scoring a try on June 26, 2021
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