Warren Gatland admits he doesn’t know who the Lions will face on Wednesday

Warren Gatland has had to be as nimble as Cheslin Kolbe on this tour, such is the changing landscape for the Lions in South Africa.

Hamish Watson will start for the Lions against the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld.
Hamish Watson will start for the Lions against the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld.

The ever-present spectre of Covid means plans can be altered at the drop of a hat, and so it was again on Friday when the head coach admitted he didn’t know who his side would be playing on Wednesday.

The Lions will face the Sharks in Pretoria on Saturday evening, four days after they walloped them 54-7 in Johannesburg. Hardly ideal, but Gatland is just grateful to have a game after intended opponents, the Bulls, had to scratch due to a raft of positive tests.

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The tourists will then head south to Cape Town on Sunday and it looks as if the rest of the matches will be played there, including all three Tests.

Wednesday’s opponents are supposed to be South Africa A but there is now some doubt about it because of the Covid issues in the Springboks camp, with the whole squad isolating.

So instead of facing the second string Boks on Wednesday and the Stormers three days later, they are set to trade slots.

“We’re not 100 per cent sure who the opposition is going to be next week, so it’s a little bit difficult to plan too far ahead,” Gatland said.

“It’ll either be the Springboks A or the Stormers. They might switch those games around. That hasn’t been confirmed. Hopefully in the next 24 hours we’ll know which way those games go.”

Chris Harris finds himself sandwiched by the Sigma Lions in Johannesburg. Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

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The first match in the Test series is scheduled for Cape Town Stadium on July 24 but Gatland revealed that it now looks likely that the second and final Tests will also be played there, rather than Johannesburg as originally planned.

“I’m pretty sure the second and third Tests will be played in Cape Town. That’s my understanding at the moment,” said the coach.

The Lions, of course, have had two positive tests of their own but have been cleared to face the Sharks. The unnamed player who tested positive on Wednesday has since returned two successive negatives, enabling him and his close contacts to leave isolation.

However, the touring party faces being split as a member of the management team who was infected remains in quarantine along with his close contacts, comprising one player and three staff.

When the Lions leave for Cape Town, the five will be left behind in Johannesburg until they are able to follow the main group out of Gauteng.

The Lions have made 13 changes for the Sharks re-match, with only Duhan van der Merwe and Elliot Daly retained from Wednesday’s win.

The Scotland wing scored a hat-trick in Johannesburg and was named man of the match and will look to get among the tries once more against opponents who have made 11 changes and have been given dispensation to name 11 replacements, although they will be allowed to use only eight.

Van der Merwe will have Scotland team-mates Chris Harris, Hamish Watson and Rory Sutherland alongside him in the starting XV at Loftus Versfeld. Finn Russell is on the bench, one of only two backs among the eight Lions replacements.

Jamie George has been named captain of the side, the first Englishman to lead the Lions since Phil Vickery in 2009.

British and Irish Lions (v Sharks, Saturday, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, 5pm BST)

15. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales)

14. Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England)

13. Elliot Daly (Saracens, England)

12. Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland)

11. Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland)

10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales)

9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales)

1. Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland)

2. Jamie George – captain (Saracens, England)

3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland)

4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, England)

5. Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England)

6. Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland)

7. Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland)

8. Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland)

Replacements:

16. Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales)

17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales)

18. Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England)

19. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England)

20. Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England)

21. Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England)

22. Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland)

23. Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland)

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