D-Day for the Lions with Leonard to reveal the 36 players selected by Gatland for South Africa tour


Stand by your devices. Thursday is the day we have all been waiting for, one of glitz, glamour, dreams and despair that in rugby only the British & Irish Lions can conjure.

Thursday’s announcement of the 36-man squad and tour captain, head coach Warren Gatland has selected for the South Africa trip will be a very 2021 affair.

Due to Covid not even all of his coaching staff could physically attend the final agonising selection meeting on Wednesday at the Lensbury Club in Teddington, south west London, with forwards expert Robin McBryde Zooming in from Ireland having just come back from La Rochelle with his Leinster team having lost in the European Cup semi-final on the Atlantic Coast.

Alun Wyn Jones is expected to be named as captain for the Lions tour of South Africa

Alun Wyn Jones is expected to be named as captain for the Lions tour of South Africa

And when, at around 12.15pm, the skipper is revealed – likely to be Welshman Alun Wyn Jones – he will not be present either, nor will he have attended a legends dinner the night before like Sam Warburton did in 2017, rather dialling in from near home once unveiled to the world.

In fact just a handful will be physically at the Mermaid Theatre by Blackfriars Bridge, the venue chosen for the announcement to bring together this socially-distanced squad; Gatland, his coaches Gregor Townsend, Steve Tandy and Neil Jenkins, a camera crew and a couple of communications managers.

Without the hundreds of usual media, sponsorship and hanger-on attendees from years gone by, it will be a far eerier event on the Thames – but with thousands of eyes on it as ever.

Saracens star Maro Itoje will be among players, fans and media eagerly awaiting the news

Saracens star Maro Itoje will be among players, fans and media eagerly awaiting the news

From the studio decked out in Lions branding within the old theatre Scottish broadcaster Lee McKenzie will run the show for those tuning in.

Streamed via Lionsrugby.com, their social media channels and official app if any anxious player or fan wants in all they will need is a 4G or WiFi to access it.

When ‘Fun Bus’ Jason Leonard – the Lions chairman – rolls forward to his lectern at 12.30pm to read out each selected name in turn it will be the first time any player will know they are in.

In keeping with tradition there will be no prior warnings sent to them, their coaches, clubs or agents; the tourists find out the same time as us all with only seven or eight figures knowing their true identities beforehand.

It will be a wait long enough to sweat off the hand-sanitiser for some.

Warren Gatland will be among a handful of people present at the squad announcement

Warren Gatland will be among a handful of people present at the squad announcement

The form is that Leonard will start with the backs, going through alphabetically, and then will list the forwards with the club, country and position spelled out for each.

So while the likes of Josh Adams, Dan Biggar or Elliot Daly may have dreams dashed or made within seconds for poor Hamish Watson and the Vunipola brothers the suspense could be excruciating.

That is of course if they are watching at all. Players on the long-list, who received letters in the past fortnight from the Lions asking if they would like to tour if selected, will have to decide how they take in the news.

Clubs like Exeter Chiefs, who have seven realistically in with a shot, and Sale Sharks, with Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi on tenterhooks, have days off training so their hopefuls will be at home either nervously watching the live stream or avoiding it completely.

In Wales the Scarlets, who should have five players picked, and at Saracens – with Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, Billy and Mako Vunipola all expectant – Thursday’s training will conclude before midday so the squad can either watch together or shoot off home to be alone with their buzzing phones.

Lions chairman Jason Leonard will reveal the names of the 36-man squad on Thursday

Lions chairman Jason Leonard will reveal the names of the 36-man squad on Thursday

LIONS STAT: 9

Lions Tests played by Alun Wyn Jones. 

If he features in all three this summer he will become the first player in the professional era to win double figures of Lions caps, and go joint-third on the all-time list level with Mike Gibson and Graham Price, behind Dickie Jeeps (13) and Willie John McBride (17).

Around 60 players had their photographs taken in a Lions shirt for this day during the Six Nations or at their clubs – so many will have to be quickly deleted – and each will appear on screen as they join rugby’s great roll-call.

A couple will be asked to dial into the broadcast for immediate reactions, after Gatland, his captain and Lions legends Sam Warburton, Gavin Hastings, Tommy Bowe, Jason Robinson and South African Bryan Habana have had their say.

Once known, the 2021 Lions lot will be analysed, scrutinised and argued over across four nations and two hemispheres. “What about X!” could be the day’s Twitter trend. 

And for the picked players worries of selection will be replaced by hopes that their bodies hold to make it to the jumbo jet set for Johannesburg in June.

But once their names have left Leonard’s lips at lunchtime today, they will be – at least for now – Lions all. 

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