“We’re obviously disappointed for Finn, who I think has been outstanding since he came into camp in Jersey, but we are optimistic he’ll still play an important role in the Tour,” Gatland said. “We have two experienced fly-halves in Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar, so it’s a great opportunity for the continued development of Marcus.
“I’ve been following him closely for the past 12 months and I’ve been impressed with how well he’s matured as a player. Finn and Marcus are similar in that they like to play with a bit of freedom, so, for me, it’s as close to a like-for-like cover as we can get. We look forward to welcoming him to the group in Cape Town.”
It is another bold selection call by Gatland. Neither Sexton, who played in all the Lions’ Test matches in 2013 and 2017, nor Ford are involved in their countries’ summer international matches but are understood to be fit and available for selection. Smith only received his opportunity under England head coach Eddie Jones this summer because of multiple absentees.
Smith will join a tour that has already been turned upside down by multiple Covid-19 tests in four separate teams, including the Lions. The Springboks, meanwhile, had to cancel their match against Georgia on Friday after uncovering 12 positive cases within their camp last week.
That upheaval is set to continue into next week. It is understood that the Springboks may not be allowed to follow the Lions from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Sunday by the Medical Advisory Group with so many players and staff in isolation.
The Lions are due to play South Africa A on Wednesday but Telegraph Sport understands that fixture may be pushed back to Thursday or Friday. That would result in the match against the Stormers on July 17 being scrapped with the Lions playing their final two warm-up matches against South Africa A. The Test series against the Springboks begins on July 24.
“I think there are a number of players that have tested positive and they’re in sort of isolation and locked down,” Gatland said. “And I don’t know how much training that they’ve been doing as a group. So they may need to have an internal hit out against each other with not being able to play the Georgia game and potentially their game could be switched from Wednesday to Saturday.”
The Lions also experienced the chaos that a positive test can cause when a staff member complained of feeling ill on the Wednesday morning of their first match against the Cell C sharks. The entire squad were placed into lockdown and were only given the green light to play the game by the Medical Advisory Game just two hours before kick-off. In spite of the disruption, the Lions went on to win 54-7 which led Gatland to praise their “outstanding” resilience.
“I look at it as a positive that nothing is going to derail us,” Gatland said. “It reminded me of 2013 when we were playing the Barbarians in the Hong Kong. It was rush hour and we only arrived half an hour beforehand.
“On the bus, Andy Irvine was yelling at the bus driver. He turns to me and says, ‘Gats, I can’t believe you are so calm’, and I said, ‘I cannot do anything about it so why stress’. It was the same thing on Wednesday. The boys were absolutely outstanding in the way that they fronted up and prepared for that match.”