Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who holds down a day job as head coach of Wales when he is not moonlighting his way around South Africa as the British and Irish Lions' forwards strategist, was preparing to renew acquaintances with his national captain rather sooner than expected when he arrived in Cape Town last night. Awaiting him on the waterfront was Ryan Jones, a minor-key hero of the last Lions tour in 2005 but left off the roster this time because of a drop in form so horribly vertical that some wondered whether he had lost the plot altogether.
A difficult meeting ahead, Warren? "This is a professional sport and I'd be very disappointed if Ryan had an issue with me personally about not being selected in the original party," Gatland responded when pressed on the matter. Jones is known to be tender about the matter, all the same. This should have been his tour of tours; indeed, this time last year, he was everyone's favourite for the captaincy. Rugby may be a hard game played by hard-bitten individuals, but, with the possible exception of the scary Springbok lock Bakkies Botha, they all have a sensitive spot somewhere.
Jones arrived in the country yesterday after being summoned as a replacement for the Irish flanker Stephen Ferris, who was very close to a Test spot before mangling his knee ligaments during a training session earlier this week. The coaches would be stretching a point to include him in the 22-man squad for tomorrow's game with Western Province, but he will certainly be involved in Tuesday's contest with the newly-created Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth and will fancy his chances of a run against the Springboks at some point in the Test series.
There are a few people thinking along those lines, not least Jones' compatriot and international back-row colleague Martyn Williams. The open-side flanker is due to start against Western Province after recovering from the shoulder injury that prevented him mixing it with the Free State Cheetahs six days ago. He knows he is up against it in the race for the Test position – on a tour as short as this, one missed opportunity equals a calamity – and openly agreed yesterday that this match at Newlands amounts to a final trial.
"I haven't been involved in one of those since Wales under-15s," he said, before recalling that another New Zealander in charge of the Red Dragonhood, Graham Henry, held one back in the 1990s. "There will be a few of us in the same position, because a number of people stuck their hands up for Test selection in winning the last game against the Sharks. There were a few wry smiles amongst the rest of us, because we were all thinking: 'Right, now we know what we have to do.'
"We all want the Test shirt, don't we? But Ian McGeechan [the head coach] has told us once again that the team for the first meeting with the Springboks won't be picked until after Tuesday's game, and anyway, it's a three-Team series, not a one-off. It will be a surprise if we go through all the Tests with the same team on the field. Those of us who don't get picked immediately have to be professional and mature enough to handle the disappointment and work hard for the squad, in the knowledge that our chance may come."
The South Africans, together in Durban for the first stage of their preparations, have a serious doubt over the fitness of the flanker Schalk Burger, one of the most celebrated Springboks of his generation. Burger sat out training yesterday – the World Cup-winning No 8 Danie Rossouw was running in the back row alongside Pierre Spies and Juan Smith — and some whispers suggested he would not be ready for the Test a week tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the Western Province captain and No 8 Luke Watson has been speaking to Bath about a possible move to the Premiership. Watson, son of the rugby-playing anti-apartheid campaigner Cheeky Watson, is a controversial character in South Africa, having been involved in a number of high-profile conflicts with the Springbok hierarchy.Reuse content