Simon Mail previews the opening Test between world champions South Africa and the British & Irish Lions with a tight encounter expected...
"South Africa have home advantage and extensive experience throughout their World Cup winning team whereas the Lions' combinations have not yet been tested in this intense environment."
South Africa v British & Irish Lions
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Lions bidding for more glory under Gatland
The British & Irish Lions are set for a huge challenge this weekend with the opening Test taking place against world champions South Africa. The tour was under threat due to the pandemic and the lack of fans at matches is a major disappointment. Fears over Covid have led to all three Test matches taking place in Cape Town and some of the warm-up games have been affected at late notice.
Warren Gatland leads the Lions for the third successive tour and is still yet to lose a series in charge.
The former Wales coach led the Lions to a 2-1 victory in Australia in 2013 before holding then world champions New Zealand to a series draw four years ago.
This is another hugely demanding task for the tourists but Gatland's experience and past success should ensure his team are well prepared to face the Springboks.
The Lions suffered their first defeat of the tour last week, losing 17-13 to a strong South Africa A team. Tries from Sbu Nkosi and Lukhanyo Am earned the hosts victory in a much-needed test for Gatland's side. The Lions completed their preparations with a comfortable 49-3 win over the Stormers last weekend. Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds scored two of their seven tries at Cape Town Stadium.
Gatland has made a series of bold team selections for the opener with Alun Wyn Jones captaining the team after his miraculous recovery from a dislocated shoulder. He becomes the first player in the professional era to win 10 successive Test caps for the Lions.
Three Scotland players are picked with Stuart Hogg and Ali Price both included. Dan Biggar starts at fly-half with Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the midfield. The likes of Jamie George, number eight Taulupe Faletau and prolific scorer Josh Adams are not even included in the squad.
World champions to present major challenge
South Africa claimed World Cup glory after crushing England's dreams in the 2019 final but the Springboks may be coming into this series slightly undercooked after just one official match since their tournament triumph. Jacques Nienaber's side eased to a 40-3 win over Georgia earlier this month, although many of their players were utilised in the 'A' team's win over the Lions.
The Springboks have selected a strong team to take on the Lions, with captain Siya Kolisi fit to start after recovering from Covid 19. Eleven of the players that started the final against England in Japan in 2019 are picked for Saturday's opener.
Fly-half Handre Pollard wins his 50th international cap while wing Makazole Mapimpi and prop Ox Nche start after completing their self-isolation.
The betting suggests the first Test is finely balanced with the Lions the narrowest of favourites at 2.0421/20. South Africa have home advantage and extensive experience throughout their World Cup winning team though whereas the Lions' combinations have not yet been tested in this intense environment.
This could tip the balance in the Springboks' favour although the margins are likely to be incredibly tight. South Africa can make a winning start to the series but the Lions will push them all the way and a victory by no more than 10 points stands out at 9/5.
One of South Africa's most likely matchwinners is Cheslin Kolbe and the flying wing is fancied to score in this weekend's showdown. Kolbe's phenomenal speed and footwork is a huge threat to the Lions. The Toulouse back scored three times at the World Cup, including in the final.
Kolbe does not need much space to punish opposing defences and is worth backing to cross the line at 21/10 in a successful start for the Springboks.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
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