AT the risk of tempting fate, it should be said that the British & Irish Lions are in pretty good shape as they prepare for Saturday’s first Test against South Africa. Given the plethora of problems they have had to contend with both on and off the field, it is a remarkable turnaround by the tourists, and one which compares very favourably with the position in which the Springboks find themselves.

There is still plenty of time for more things to go wrong between now and Thursday’s team announcement, and an injury list which includes Finn Russell and possibly Liam Williams will present lingering difficulties to Warren Gatland and his assistant coaches as they contemplate their selection options for the game in Cape Town. But, mere weeks since the tour was widely being written off as doomed, the overall picture is remarkably bright.

That is not to downplay the dire domestic situation in South Africa, where civic unrest and a renewed Covid crisis have combined chaotically. Nor is it necessarily to suggest that it was right for the tour to have gone ahead in the first place during a continuing pandemic and the inevitable difficulties that it has produced.

But if for the moment we put such issues to one side and focus instead on the central task facing Gatland - to produce a squad capable of winning the three-Test series against the world champions - the sustained progress is plain to see.

Most importantly, there is real competition for every position in the starting 15 - something that appeared implausible when the squad was named. Several supposed outsiders are now firmly in the running for a place in the team, and although they are in part counter-balanced by the underachievement of a few established names, on the whole there has been a levelling up as the business end of the tour approaches.

Take Ali Price. From being viewed in some quarters as a surprise selection at scrum-half, the Glasgow Warriors player has emerged as the form No 9, providing further evidence in Saturday’s 49-3 win over the Stormers that he is significantly sharper right now than either Ireland’s Conor Murray or Gareth Davies of Wales. Gatland has certainly been impressed: twice in the past few days, the head coach has hailed Price’s progress.  

“Ali’s done well,” he said after the seven-try victory. “We had a few box-kicks which probably went a little bit too far when we wanted to compete a little bit more, so that’s an area we need to tidy up, but he’s looked sharp and when he began to run a little bit he started to put them under pressure, particularly from third and fourth phase. 

“He had a nice break and picked up some runners as well, so he’s been excellent. I’ve been really pleased with his performances.” 

The elevation of Murray to tour captain in the wake of Alun Wyn Jones’s dislocated shoulder was seen as a blow to Price’s hopes, given the convention that the captaincy goes to someone who is sure of his place. But since then, of course, the Welsh lock has returned to the squad and resumed as skipper, making the choice of scrum-half less of a political hot potato.

And take Chris Harris too. Like Price, the Gloucester centre was seen in some quarters as providing some midweek ballast to the squad while the big beasts got set for the weekend, but thanks to some increasingly impressive outings he is now a serious contender for a place in the team that matters most. 

Looking beyond the Scottish contingent, there have been some late runs up the rails from others such as England forwards Mako Vunipola and Tom Curry, both of whom have come on to a game over the past week. And behind the scrum, Gatland’s happiest headache is surely in the back three, where Stuart Hogg, Josh Adams, Anthony Watson, Louis Rees-Zammit and Duhan van der Merwe are all in the fight for three places along with Williams if he is passed fit following concussion.

It does not always follow that team form gets better as a consequence of individuals’ improvements, but in this case it has done so. Even allowing for the modest nature of the opposition, the Lions were at their most creative of the tour by far on Saturday, at times counter-attacking in devastating fashion.

There are lessons that have to be learned from the midweek defeat by South Africa ‘A’, of course, but there were plenty of positives too, above all the domination in the set scrum. In any case, a Lions tour is all about players learning on their feet as fast as possible, and that 17-13 loss could be invaluable when it comes to showing the tourists what they need to do to beat the Springboks.