Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson has told us that “all-time great” Alun Wyn Jones’ miraculous recovery from injury to captain the Lions for the upcoming series against South Africa is momentous for the squad as they are in the “presence of greatness” with the forward.

The Lions take on South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday in the opening Test of their three-match series against the world champions as they look to secure a first series win over the nation for 24 years.

The tourists will now be able to call upon captain Wyn Jones following his remarkable return from a shoulder injury sustained last month – something that Dawson, who helped the Lions to the famous series win against South Africa in 1997, feels will prove invaluable to the squad.

“Alun Wyn Jones’ return is brilliant news for the Lions,” Dawson said. “He came on at the weekend against DHL Stormers and didn’t look like he was taking any backward steps. But for the Lions to have that experience back, the comms with the referee, a talisman within the team… All of the Lions team are going to look around at him and think ‘you have been there and done it, you’ve been everywhere’.

“It’s his 10th Lions Test on the spin, it’s like playing with the modern-day Willie John McBride – it’s that enormous for the Lions. Every player knows that they’re in the presence of greatness with Alun Wyn Jones. It doesn’t matter what walk of life it is, if you’re working with someone that you know is an all-time great, you’re going to up your game. So, his return is incredibly important for the Lions.”

South Africa have played just one official match since their World Cup win in 2019 – a 40-9 victory over Georgia earlier this month, although a number of players took part in a recent South Africa ‘A’ game against the Lions. And Dawson feels the Springboks will struggle with their fitness in the first Test as a result.

“South Africa are a little undercooked due to their lack of gametime since the World Cup, but I was surprised at how quickly they came out of the blocks in that South Africa ‘A’ game where there were a lot of Test players involved,” Dawson said. “They had the intensity, and the physicality, but they didn’t have the fitness in the last 20-25 minutes. Can they get that within a week? Or on the back of one game?

“South Africa are known for their backs-against-the-wall attitude. If they’ve got reason to motivate themselves, if people are writing them off, saying ‘they haven’t played since the World Cup’, ‘they’re going to be undercooked’ or ‘look how good the Lions are’ it will all be a red rag to the bull. They are going to come out all guns blazing.”

Dawson added: “But I think the Lions will win the first Test. They’re going to be so sharp after that South Africa ‘A’ game, which was crucial, the whole squad will know what level they need to be at. They really needed that match, otherwise the coaches and senior players would have had to re-emphasise the gap in intensity from the other warm-up games they have played compared to being in a Test match. It was a proper ‘here we are’ match and a great reminder for the Lions ahead of the first Test match.

“I just think the Lions looked fit, they looked strong, they’ve got strength in depth, they look like they’re in sync and my feeling is it will take South Africa another game to get up to the speed and the danger that the Lions will have, which we’ll see from them in Tests two and three.”

But while Dawson believes the Lions will take the first Test, he’s backing South Africa to come back into it for the remaining games in a series he feels looks too tough to call.

“It’s going to be a 2-1 series result either way, I can’t see a whitewash for either side,” Dawson said. “I think the Lions will win the first Test but it’s going to be one, two, three points, one of those tight encounters – so the series could go either way. My heart, and probably just my head, say a 2-1 win for the Lions, but I don’t know whether my heart is taking over my brain slightly!

“Having seen what South Africa were like in 1997, they are absolutely now not in that same mind space of ‘we’re world champions and you’re coming into our back yard, you haven’t got a chance’. They’re a million miles away from that, they know they’re up against it and know where they need to be to not fail. And it will be deemed as a national failure if South Africa don’t win this Test series and that counts for a lot for those players.”

Dawson played a key role for the Lions in their 1997 series win over South Africa, scoring a late try as the tourists claimed victory in the first Test before they sealed the series in the second, and he looks back on those matches with great memories.

“We had been written off, we were going to lose the series 3-0, we were going to be lucky to even win one of the touring warm-up games,” he said. “So there was a huge motivation, but because of that adversity then getting ourselves into a position to win Test matches was incredible.

“I remember, as proud as I was to be in that Test team, it was by far the most intimidating arena I’d ever been in. It wasn’t your orthodox 15, you had a rugby league player on the wing, your first choice scrum-half injured, a front row probably on no-one’s radar, a second row that had only had a couple of caps for Ireland and came from nowhere. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff, a Lions version of Roy of the Rovers.

“We went behind, we were up against it but then to run them down, the plan was absolutely magnificent. The first Test for me was a little bit dreamy, I don’t really remember it too much. But the second one, where we were in the fight and thought we can win these games, visualising everything now is razor sharp.

“And seeing Neil Jenkins kick that ball out at the death to win it, you just knew there and then that it was going to be a moment that would never ever be repeated. The circumstances would never be the same, of the Lions winning that sort of Test series under such adversity.”

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