The Lions will take on a strong South Africa A side in Cape Town on Wednesday evening in what will be their toughest test of the tour thus far.
The home team is packed with full internationals, including Cheslin Kolbe, Faf De Klerk and Pieter-Steph Du Toit, and there are seven men in total who started in the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup final victory over England.
The Boks have played only one match since then, the 40-9 win over Georgia earlier this month.
A second Test against the Georgians scheduled for last Friday was postponed because of Covid outbreaks in both squads and South African management fear their team will be drastically undercooked when they take on the Lions in the first Test on July 24.
Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, would like to arrange another South Africa A v Lions match for Saturday and give more of his squad a chance to get up to speed.
The Lions are due to play the Stormers this weekend while there has been talk of South Africa possibly taking on the Sharks.
However, Erasmus believes there are also compelling health reasons to to have another game between the Lions and Springboks A.
“If we play a game against a team like the Sharks, the chances of infection are as good as we had when we played Georgia,” Erasmus said.
“We’ve been tested negative two days in a row now. We are in a totally hard bubble, we are moving nowhere. Everybody is negative. The British and Irish squad is negative.
“If the two of us can play the ‘A’ game on Wednesday and play another one on Saturday, I think medically, on player welfare grounds and also for the spectators, it would be wonderful. We would have two good match-ups.
“I’m sure Warren and the guys wouldn’t be afraid or scared or say no to that. I’m going to beg until we find really valid medical reasons why that is not the safest option.
“It would give us the best preparation to be good competition for the Lions – and I’m sure Warren would want us to be at full strength and have good match fitness before we play them in the first Test match. I can’t say I’m confident – I’m hoping.”
Erasmus’ hopes were quickly dashed when Gatland gave a curt reply during a press conference happening simultaneously: “We won’t be playing them again on Saturday,” he said.
Whether that is the final word on the matter remains to be seen.
The tourists will be aware that South Africa helped them out last weekend by allowing the Sharks to play a second match against the Lions when the scheduled fixture against the Bulls had to be postponed due to Covid cases at the Pretoria-based club.
The Sharks did the Lions a favour by filling a hole in their tour itinerary and some may feel minded to return the favour. On the other hand, Gatland knows he will be judged on the Test series and is unlikely to allow anything to hamper his preparations.