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Lions explain bench U-turn selection after the arrival of Jones

By Liam Heagney

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Warren Gatland has explained his U-turn regarding the bench selection of Alun Wyn Jones for this Saturday’s Lions match versus the Stormers in Cape Town, their last preparation match before the three-game Test series versus the Springboks opens on July 24.  

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The Lions boss had initially stated on Wednesday night when Jones was en route to Cape Town following his miracle shoulder dislocation recovery that the veteran Welsh forward would not be considered for selection against the Stormers as his original tour captain would likely need to spend a few days isolating before getting stuck into the action. 

However, having arrived in South Africa on Thursday morning along with fellow mid-tour call-up Ronan Kelleher, Jones came through a round of virus testing and was cleared by the Lions medics to be available for selection for this weekend’s game.   

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RugbyPass fanzone on what Alun Wyn Jones returning to the Lions means for tour skipper Conor Murray
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RugbyPass fanzone on what Alun Wyn Jones returning to the Lions means for tour skipper Conor Murray

“It was just making sure that he came and was tested,” explained Gatland about the Stormers game U-turn involving a player he thought was lost to the tour for good when he suffered his shoulder dislocation versus Japan on June 26 in Edinburgh.

“He passed the Covid tests. We needed to check on that and make sure that was done, make sure he got here safely and fit. We then just looked at the options, spoke to Alun Wyn and spoke to the medical team about the ability to put him on the bench and so we went ahead to do that. We felt that if he was going to be in contention next week that he needed to have a hit-out to prove 100 per cent that he was fit and ready to go. 

“He needs 20 minutes so we have had that conversation with him. I know he has travelled and just arrived today [Thursday] but if he is in contention for next week he needs to have a run. That is why we wanted him to have that and if someone comes off (earlier) he is ready to go. We wouldn’t have brought him out unless he was 100 per cent. 

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“That was part of the thing that he went back to Wales, he rehabbed, he took a full part in the Welsh training. We have been looking very closely at a number of videos of the training sessions he had taken part in and if the medical team hadn’t passed him fully fit then he wouldn’t have come out.”  

Gatland has said on Wednesday night following the 17-13 loss to South Africa A that the arrival of Jones back into the selection mix by no means guaranteed him a spot in a second row contest where Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Adam Beard have all especially gone well.   

“No, it’s not,” said Gatland when asked if Jones’ Test selection was guaranteed. “He hasn’t had any rugby for the last three weeks even though he has been taking a full part on training and stuff. It’s something we won’t make a decision on that. 

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“It’s going to be a conversation about what we do with the team because in the game at the moment having guys come off the bench is incredibly important and having guys who can come off and make a difference.

“That is going to be incredibly important for the Test matches that we have players who come off the bench and can really give you something, can give you energy but also that experience and ability to be able to change a game. There are no guarantees of anyone being selected. Those discussions will take place after Saturday’s game.”

It was Thursday when Gatland revisited his thinking around Test selection, insisting that multiple places were still up for grabs. “Probably fluid in terms of 60, 70 per cent,” he suggested. “We have got some thoughts on where we are. We want to see some players have another hit out this weekend, have another look at some of those combinations. 

“There are a few guys who aren’t involved who we are pretty happy with but it is still an opportunity for the side on Saturday to go and stake a claim. We felt we learned a heck of a lot from last night’s runout against the Boks. We were disappointed with some of our turnover rate. 

“We got on top of that much better in the second half. We were really pleased with our second-half performance, how strong we were and we finished over the top of them. But we need to start better and we need to make sure we are in that arm wrestle early on and deal with their kicking game. That is pretty much in our thoughts as well.”  

Itoje, meanwhile, was looking forward to the increased competition for Test places that the return of Jones will bring to the Lions squad. “I want the competition, I want the best team available, I want to compete. All those kinds of decisions are up to the man that gets paid the big bucks, Warren, so I will leave that to him but from my point of view, I just want to do whatever I can to help this team be successful.  

“He [Jones] is a man of immeasurable experience, he is the most capped rugby player in the history of rugby so he is going to add his experience, he is going to add his clout and add his edge.”

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Lions explain bench U-turn selection after the arrival of Jones

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