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British and Irish Lions tour 2021: Warren Gatland names his 36-man squad to take on world champions South Africa
Everything you need to know as Lions head coach Warren Gatland announces his touring party to take on world champions South Africa.
The eyes of the rugby world will be watching later this week when British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland names his 36-man squad for the 2021 tour of South Africa.
The Lions are set for an eight-match tour, including three Tests against world champions South Africa, from July 3 to August 7 under strict COVID-19 protocols.
This will be Gatland's third stint as Lions head coach after leading tours of Australia in 2013 and New Zealand in 2017.
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The former Wales supremo was also a part of Sir Ian McGeechan's coaching team for the last tour of South Africa back in 2009, when the Lions lost 2-1 in one of the most physically brutal Test series in history.
“To put on that Lions jersey is incredibly special,” said Gatland ahead of the squad unveiling later this week.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be on a number of Lions tours and seeing those players put the jersey on for the first time – you can see the pride in their faces.
“It’s about understanding what has come before you and the famous players who have worn the iconic jersey and those who will come after you. The Lions are regarded as the best of the best and this is the biggest challenge in rugby.
“Once you’ve been selected, once you’ve played for the Lions, that is something that can never ever be taken away from you.”
Lions v South Africa: Test Dates
First Test: South Africa v Lions - July 24
Second Test: South Africa v Lions - July 31
Third Test: South Africa v Lions - August 7
When is the squad being announced?
Gatland names the third Lions squad of his career on Thursday 6 May, less than two months before an exhibition match against Japan at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 26 June.
The names of the players who will be wearing the famous red shirt will be read out from 12.28pm onwards via a live stream on the Lions website.
Who will be captain?
The man charged with leading the Lions against the world champion Springboks will be unveiled at 12.09pm, 20 minutes before the full squad is revealed.
Among the leading candidates for the position include Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, Wales skipper Alun Wyn-Jones, England's Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje - who has never led his country at Test level to date.
Former Wales skipper and BT Sport pundit Sam Warburton, who led the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013 and to a drawn series with New Zealand in 2017, has backed Maro Itoje to step up as captain.
"I was so impressed with him in 2017," Warburton told BBC Sport. "I would follow him into battle."
"I know people will think [Itoje] is under-cooked, and hasn't played much, and gave away a load of penalties [in the Six Nations], but he still had a big influence on those games.
"I have gone back and forth [with my choice]. It was Maro, then Alun Wyn, and now we are getting closer [to the tour] I am going back to my gut and going back to Maro.
"I just think it suits him. Lions captain just suits him."
Who will be missing out?
England scrum-half Ben Youngs has ruled himself out for the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa this year to spend more family time this summer, with his wife pregnant with their third child.
After winning his first Lions cap in the series victory over Australia in 2013, Youngs withdrew from the 2017 tour to New Zealand because his brother Tom's wife was terminally ill with cancer.
"I've got two young children and my wife is heavily pregnant with the third. This summer I've got an opportunity to be with my family and my kids," said Youngs.
"I have always loved the Lions. I'll be cheering them on and I wish everyone involved a healthy and successful tour. It's not a decision that I've taken lightly, but it's the best decision for my family."
Youngs' England teammate Joe Launchbury was ruled out of the tour a fortnight ago after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury to his left knee.
Wales centre George North suffered the same knee injury as Launchbury less than a week later to extinguish his hopes of representing the Lions for a third successive tour.
North has impressed since transitioning from the wing to outside centre and was expected to play a big part in Gatland's plans.
“It’s a big blow for the Lions and a big blow for George as well,” said Gatland.
“For a number of years we thought about the potential of him moving from the wing into the midfield and how would he go with that.
“He was looking incredibly promising from the Six Nations and the way he performed. It’s a big loss for George, I feel for him and wish him a speedy recovery and hopefully he can get back to full fitness and get quickly to playing international rugby."
Will there be any surprises?
The unique circumstances surrounding the tour means Gatland may well spring a few shocks when he names his initial touring party on Thursday.
The term 'Lions Bolter' has been used down the years to describe a dark-horse pick and there are plenty of contenders making a late surge for selection.
Youngs' withdrawal has given Gatland a headache at scrum-half where the Lions are not blessed for talent.
Ireland's Conor Murray is pole position to wear the number nine jersey as we stand but a number of alternatives have been mooted including Harlequins half-back Danny Care.
Care has not played for England since November 2018 but the 34-year-old is in the form of his life with Quins pushing for a first play-off berth since 2014.
The veteran scrum-half has been tipped as a potential tourist by former Lions winger and BT Sport pundit, Ugo Monye.
“Maybe I’m biased, I’m happy to be that, but Danny’s playing as well as anyone at the moment," he told Premiership Rugby.
"When Warren Gatland and his Lions coaches will be having these conversations, they’ll be assessing the form of the players.
"Gatland was at the Bristol v Harlequins game a few weeks ago, and I’m sure will have been impressed with Danny’s all-court game.
"What you want to do is be part of the conversation. The only way to do that is by playing well and Danny is doing that."
Care's Quins half-back partner Marcus Smith has also emerged as another potential surprise selection as the squad announcement draws closer.
The uncapped English fly-half has been in fine form for his club side and was unfortunate not to receive a call up to England's doomed Six Nations campaign.
WIth question marks around the form of Owen Farrell and fitness of Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton, Smith could well become a British and Irish Lion before he becomes an England interntional.
Another player who's thriving despite being ostracised by England head coach Eddie Jones is Exeter Chiefs back-rower Sam Simmonds.
In 2020 the dynamic number eight won the European Player of the Year award as Exeter scooped the Champions Cup and Premiership double last season and he's picked up from where he left off this season.
His league-leading 14 Premiership tries is six more than anyone else in English rugby while he's also in the top five for metres gained.
Will the 26-year-old prove Gatland's ace up the sleeve on the hard tracks of South Africa?
Another dilemma for Gatland is the fitness of England centre Manu Tuilagi.
With North unavailable due to injury the Lions could do with a big ball-carrying threat in midfield and few players in the world possess size and power like Tuilagi.
However the 29-year-old has not played since tearing his achilles in September and won't have played a single competitive game before Gatland settles on his squad this Thursday.
Whether Gatland gambles on including Tuilagi after such a lengthy lay-off will be one of the most intriguing sub-plots as the excitement builds towards Thursday's announcement.