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Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones: ‘To be sitting here now is very, very special’

His comeback from injury will make Saturday’s first Test against South Africa all the more emotional for the 35-year-old

Alun Wyn Jones in action against the Stormers.
Alun Wyn Jones in action against the Stormers. He will lead the British & Irish Lions on Saturday after a miraculous comeback from a dislocated shoulder. Photograph: David Gibson/Fotosport/Shutterstock
Alun Wyn Jones in action against the Stormers. He will lead the British & Irish Lions on Saturday after a miraculous comeback from a dislocated shoulder. Photograph: David Gibson/Fotosport/Shutterstock
Robert Kitson
in Cape Town

Last modified on Wed 21 Jul 2021 16.47 EDT

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.

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Gatland's biggest ever Lions calls

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Dropping O'Driscoll for third Test (2013)

Gatland knew a backlash was coming when he decided to leave Brian O’Driscoll, a former Lions captain taking part in his fourth tour, out of the squad completely for the decider in Australia. But he did not anticipate quite how ferocious it would be. "There was an extraordinary level of hostility to the decision, way beyond anything I’d ever encountered," he recalled. "It was wild, vicious and, in my view at least, miles over the top.” Gatland was ultimately vindicated with Jonathan Davies shining alongside Jamie Roberts in midfield as the Lions won 41-16.

Naming O’Mahony captain for first Test (2017)

The tour captain Sam Warburton was returning from a knee injury but with a lack of game time and Sean O’Brien in fine form at openside, Gatland left Warburton on the bench and made Peter O'Mahony the captain after the Irishman impressed in the warm-ups. It would be harsh to say it backfired but O’Mahony did not exactly shine in the 30-15 defeat and dropped out of the squad altogether for the two subsequent Tests.

Pairing Sexton and Farrell in second Test (2017)

Those close to the squad believe twin playmakers were at the heart of Gatland’s plans all along in New Zealand but Johnny Sexton was not 100% for the first Test and Ben Te’o had been a revelation at inside-centre. Gatland has the courage of his convictions but equally is willing to change things if they are not working and after Te’o failed to make much of a dent, Owen Farrell moved to 12 and in came Sexton to prise open the All Blacks defence in a 24-21 victory in Wellington.  

Photograph: David Davies/PA
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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.

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South Africa v British & Irish Lions - first Test XVs

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South Africa: W Le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D De Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard, F De Klerk; O Nché, B Mbonambi, T Nyakane, E Etzebeth, F Mostert, S Kolisi (c), P-S du Toit, K Smith.Replacements: M Marx, S Kitshoff, F Malherbe, L De Jager, R Elstadt, H Jantjies, E Jantjies, D Willemse.-

Lions: S Hogg; A Watson, Elliot Daly, R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; D Biggar, A Price; W Jones, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong, M Itoje, AW Jones, C Lawes, T Curry, J Conan. Replacements: K Owens, R Sutherland, K Sinckler, T Beirne, H Watson, C Murray, O Farrell, L Williams.

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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.”

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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.