After months of uncertainty over whether the tour will go ahead, the British and Irish Lions start their quest to secure a series win over South Africa on Saturday.
The two sides will go into battle at Cape Town Stadium without the roars of partisan Springboks fans and passionate Lions supporters who have made the trip, as no spectators are allowed in due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
However, neither team should require a raucous atmosphere to get fired up for a first contest between South Africa and the Lions in 12 years.
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber has selected 21 of the 23 players who were World Cup winners in Japan two years ago in the matchday squad for such an eagerly awaited opening showdown. The world champions' preparation has been far from ideal, with 14 players and six members of the management team having tested positive for COVID-19 this month.
Captain Siya Kolisi was among those to have contracted the virus, but he will lead a formidable side that will be so tough to beat on home turf.
As for the Lions, Alun Wyn Jones has made an astonishing recovery to captain the tourists only four weeks after suffering a dislocated shoulder against Japan.
South Africa can win consecutive series against the Lions for the first time since they were successful in both 1962 and 1968, having come out on top by a 2-1 scoreline in 2009.
Yet the Lions have been racking up the points in their tour matches ahead of the three Tests, scoring 39 tries in six games in 2021 - which is 21 more than they managed in the entire 2017 trip to New Zealand.
Warren Gatland's men were beaten 17-13 by a strong South Africa A team during the warm-up fixtures, though, getting a taste of the sort of power they know they will come up against when facing the Boks.
Another day, another incredible speech from the 1997 Tour— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 23, 2021
This time it’s @rhillrugby walking you through Keith Wood’s rousing speech before our Lions took on the Springboks
Watch the full episode #LionsRugby #CastleLionsSeries #BoksvLions
TMO CHANGE STOKES THE FIRES
There is never a shortage of off-field sub-plots to fan the flames ahead of a Lions series - and this trip has been no different.
Lions head coach Gatland is said to be fuming over a chance of TMO for the first Test, with South African Marius Jonker replacing New Zealander Brendon Pickerill, who was unable to officiate due to coronavirus-related travel issues.
Robin McBryde, forwards coach for the Lions, said: "It [Jonker stepping in] was a bit unexpected. We only found out on Wednesday. There's a slight like lack of foresight because there's a reason why that position is neutral. There's no plan B put in place. You've just got to get on with it really."
Jonker was the TMO in a clash with South Africa A that saw Faf de Klerk avoid a red card for a high tackle on Josh Navidi.
VAN DER MERWE READY TO BE TARGETED
Duhan van der Merwe gets the nod to start against his country of birth, with the Scotland wing accepting he will be targeted.
Gatland said: "It's a challenge for him. I've spoken to him about what's coming on the weekend and he's fully aware.
"I presume every time he touches the ball, they'll be trying to hit him with everything they've got and there will probably be some verbals as well. So he's well aware of what's at stake and he's been incredibly relaxed."
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager, Rynhardt Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies, Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse.
British and Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe, Dan Biggar, Ali Price; Wyn Jones, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alan Wyn Jones (captain), Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Kyle Sinckler, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- This is the 14th Test series between South Africa and the Lions, with the Springboks winning eight of the previous 13 editions and the Lions triumphant in four.
- South Africa hold the head-to-head advantage in individual Test matches between the sides, winning 23 of their 46 previous Test encounters (L17, D6).
- The Lions are unbeaten in their past two Tests (W1, D1) and have not enjoyed a longer such run since a six-game run spanning the 1971 and 1974 tours (W4, D2).
- South Africa have lost just one of their previous 13 Tests (W11, D1), winning the last seven in a row – their longest winning run since 2013-14 (W8)
- Lions captain Jones will win his 10th Lions Test cap, becoming the eighth player to achieve that feat and the first this century.