The odds on Alun Wyn Jones kicking off the Test series for the British & Irish Lions looked impossibly long three weeks ago but the returning tour captain is back in the game. Twenty-six minutes on the field in a lopsided victory against another mediocre South African provincial side may not sound much but as far as the Lions management are concerned it could well be enough to see Jones parachuted straight into the starting XV for the first Test next Saturday.
It was hard not to wince every time the Wales captain took any contact but his previously dislocated left shoulder is still intact and he has survived to fight another day. While Jones did nothing overly spectacular, he looked in no apparent discomfort and the chances of him slotting into the starting second row alongside Maro Itoje must now be high.
“He put a few shots on and defended well,” said Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach. “The big thing for him was to get through and see how he was afterwards. I know how hard he’s worked over the last year. He was desperate to make the Lions. We’ll now have a discussion about whether there’s a role for him next week.”
In some cases, though, Gatland’s task has not been made appreciably easier. Robbie Henshaw was withdrawn after 58 minutes without having looked entirely back at full throttle following hamstring trouble and his Ireland colleague Tadhg Beirne did not absolutely settle the debate as to who should wear the No 6 jersey next weekend.
Among the more obvious plusses were the energetic performances of Luke Cowan-Dickie, man of the match, and the scrum-half Ali Price, both of whom did as much as they possibly could to convince Gatland to start them next week.
A very different challenge awaits against the Boks and not everyone can make the Test 23 but Jonny Hill, Adam Beard and the fleet-footed replacement Sam Simmonds also enhanced their reputations.
Marcus Smith also made a very favourable first impression on his Lions debut, converting all seven of his side’s tries and showing some deft touches with ball in hand in the final quarter on a beautiful still evening. It is meant to be the height of winter in the Cape but, give or take Table Mountain, this could have been a lovely May day in Cardiff.
On the political and pandemic fronts these remain uncertain days in southern Africa but, on a more mundane level, the sky was a flawless blue and there was nothing much on view to ruffle the Lions’ composure a week out from the Test series.
At the latest count there are reckoned to be as many as 600 South African players plying their trade in Europe and Japan at various levels and the gaps they leave behind are ruthlessly exposed on days such as this. Fans of Wasps and Harlequins will be familiar with Juan de Jongh and Tim Swiel but there is a flip side. Too many gnarled stalwarts have headed off shore rather than sticking around to assist the next generation.
Local pre-game expectations, consequently, were not terribly high but the Lions took time to get going themselves. One or two individuals looked slightly too eager to impress, making it harder for the team to click collectively, and it was almost half an hour before the touring team opened their account.
It was worth the wait, though. The strong-running Duhan Van der Merwe and Tadhg Furlong both made decent ground before Price found the unmarked Beard who galloped over from 10 metres out. Six minutes later they had a second try on the board, the alert Cowan-Dickie surging off the side of a maul to underline the scoring threat he poses for Exeter with his first Lions try.
The third score just before half-time also had a touch of the Sandy Parks about it, a lovely tip pass from Stuart Hogg allowing Hill to touch down in the left corner. Again, though, the extra tempo that Price brought to the move was impressive as was the drilled angled conversion from Smith.
Would the floodgates open in the second half? Yes was the answer, nice build-up work from Smith and Daly creating a fourth try by fashioning a midfield hole from which Jack Conan finished enthusiastically. A possible score by Beirne from a Smith cross-kick was called back for a forward pass earlier in the buildup but further tries for Zander Fagerson, Louis Rees-Zammit and Simmonds ensured another fat victory for the visitors.
It rounded off a double-header with South Africa A beaten earlier 17-14 by the Bulls, the domestic Currie Cup champions, which was not quite what the Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber had in mind in terms of ideal preparation for the opening Test next week. How the Lions would love a similar outcome when the series proper kicks off.