Hollow Bang

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For two days even Lazarus thought it was all over. As he lay at home, nursing his painful left shoulder and trying not to think about the planeload of excited British & Irish Lions players heading for South Africa without him, there was no comforting Alun Wyn Jones. “For those two days that was my tour done. I was almost on the sofa at home before the guys had even got to the airport. That was a tough one.”

It came as a complete surprise when, on the Tuesday after dislocating his shoulder against Japan at Murrayfield, he was advised that all might not be lost. “I was told there was a chance – it was bordering on the surreal. Sometimes all you need is a chance. It was about being proactive and starting the recovery and that’s what I did.”

A little over three weeks later, and here he is, poised to lead the 2021 Lions into battle against the Springboks on Saturday. If the mind is willing it is amazing where the body will follow. Mental strength has long been among Alun Wyn’s defining qualities and these past few days have merely reinforced his iron man reputation.

You know it has been a truly extraordinary resurrection when a man who has already played 157 internationals says his selection for the first Test feels extra special. “To be here now, taking the knocks and bumps and being in amongst it with the group … it means more, I am not going to lie,” he said.

So far, so warm and fuzzy. Jones is about to become the first player in the modern era to play 10 Lions Tests, elevating him to the all-time pantheon. But on a showery day in the Western Cape one big question inevitably hung in the coastal air. Could he really be 100%? And, more importantly, what fiendish brand of fitness test might the giant Springbok forwards have in store for him?

Think back to the last Lions series here in 2009, when Bakkies Botha came charging in from practically the next province to clear out another Osprey called Jones. It was to finish Adam Jones’s tour and arguably tilted the entire series. Botha is no longer around but the forbidding Eben Etzebeth certainly is. Remember that James Bond film where Richard Kiel’s character Jaws flashes his metal teeth for the first time? Imagine him wearing a Springbok shirt and you get the picture.

So you can only believe Warren Gatland when he says the Lions’ niggly full-on training session following the Test side announcement erased any lingering doubts in the management’s minds. Jones did not go into specifics but it certainly sounded like a rigorous MOT. “There are a few guys who have got questions for Gats about whether there is a Test cap involved from the session we did yesterday,” smiled the captain, never one to duck a physical challenge.

Given he only flew into South Africa last Thursday and has played a mere 26 minutes off the bench, it also says plenty about his still-burning competitive drive. “To be sitting here now and to be involved in the Test team is everything I have worked for over the last – I would be lying if I said two years – probably four years,” he says. “When you finish a series or a tour you don’t know whether you are going to tour next and a lot of games go under the bridge. To be sitting here now is a very, very special thing.”

When asked what it said about Jones that, at this rate, only Willie John McBride will have played more Lions Tests by the end of this tour, Gatland went initially for humour. “That he’s old!” he replied, smiling. He is clearly hopeful, though, that the 35-year-old’s sheer willpower will rub off on those around him. “To see someone like Alun Wyn who was desperate to rehab and to be over here to represent the Lions again, shows a lot about him as a person but also what the Lions mean. Not just to Alun Wyn, but to everybody.”

On top of that there is the minor matter of leadership, with Jones’s supposed stand-in Conor Murray having been named among the replacements. “We did discuss whether we started him on the bench again but when the decision was made to go with Ali Price at No 9, we felt we really needed his leadership and experience in terms of starting in the second row,’ said Gatland. “That’s pretty important for us.” Not only is Lazarus back, he is already cracking the whip.