DURBAN – British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland reckons combating cabin fever in the squad’s Sandton hotel is a minor challenge compared to playing two South African sides a week in the build-up to the three-Test series, which kicks off on July 24.
The tourists arrived in Johannesburg on Monday to find a country newly locked down under revised Level Four restrictions and that means they are just about captive in their hotel apart from training ground visits to St Peter’s College.
But the much-travelled, vastly-experienced Lions coach says the restrictions are nothing new.
“It is the new norm,” the New Zealander said after naming his team to play the local Lions at Emirate Airlines Park on Saturday (5pm kick-off). “It is not really a challenge for us because we have grown accustomed to it, the social distancing, the masks ...there is not a heck of a lot of difference (to what they are used to in Europe).
“Maybe it is just the lack of freedom to get out of the hotel and have a coffee and a look around, but for us, the big challenge is two games a week, that is the real challenge.”
Galtand named a team that has just one survivor from the side that started in the victory over Japan last week — Welsh wing Josh Adams — and the captaincy goes to Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg, who will preside over 10 Englishmen that come flooding into the team.
In that number is controversial England captain Owen Farrell, who is picked at inside centre, while four of the tight five are English — Welsh loosehead prop Wyn Jones is the thorn among the English roses.
Hogg said that staving boredom would not be a problem on a tour that will be like no other in the history of the Lions.
“It is a different tour but there is a lot of experience in the squad and we have played in various competitions like the Autumn Series and the Six Nations which were under similar conditions. In any case, the whole focus is on rugby and the games are going to come around very quickly.
“Having no fans is disappointing but the challenge is to create energy amongst the squad — in the games, you celebrate the little victories and you pick up energy from that,” Hogg added. “I have seen it in the game against Japan and in training this week.”
Gatland said their opposition on Saturday had been under the microscope.
“We have had a good look at them (in Rainbow Cup action) and will be strong upfront,” the coach said. “The first game on tour is always difficult and the Lions have not lost too many players to the Bok squad so they will be settled.
“They will be very motivated — playing against the B&I Lions is a once-in-a-career opportunity and they will also want the honour of being the first team to beat the Lions on tour.”
The B&I Lions next play the Sharks (Wednesday) and then the Bulls on the Saturday before the tour switches to Cape Town where in the space of a week they play SA A and the Stormers.
British and Irish Lions XV: 15 Stuart Hogg (captain), 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Bundee Aki, 23 Elliot Daly.