As tour begins to take toll, Lions lick their wounds

Hopes remain that injured Tommy Bowe could recover in time for first Test

Mon, Jun 10, 2013, 14:04

One Irish man’s misfortune is another’s gain. Simon Zebo, desperately unlucky to miss out in the first place given his X-factor game, big left boot and a disposition tailor-made for touring, was the latest to be winging his way to Australia yesterday evening from Houston as cover for the stricken Tommy Bowe.

Following on from Alex Corbisiero’s tortuous route from Argentina, and Ryan Grant’s arrival from Samoa over the weekend as replacements for Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins, Zebo lands in Sydney on Tuesday.

Given Bowe’s misfortune, question marks over Rob Kearney’s belated tour debut and that Alex Cuthbert, Stuart Hogg and, effectively, George North are all doubling up against Combined Country in Newcastle tomorrow three days after the hard-earned win over the Reds, there’s every chance Zebo will be pitched straight into Saturday’s game against the New South Wales Waratahs.

Yet, a la Kearney, it is a measure of Tommy Bowe’s importance as a proven performer in the Lions Test arena and ability to cover centre, that Warren Gatland will give the Ulster and Irish winger a fortnight to recover from surgery on a broken bone in his hand yesterday. It is, admittedly, a long shot.

‘Couple of weeks’
“The surgeon who spoke to him said that if everything goes all right it could be just a couple of weeks,” said Gatland yesterday. “Once the plate is put in, the bones are fixed, basically.”

Meanwhile, Kearney is running again and should be in contention to face the Waratahs.

Some players are undoubtedly more important than others and worryingly, given his well-being is as imperative as anybody’s to the Lions’ hopes of a Test series win, Jonny Sexton’s latest hamstring problem prompted a scan which thankfully revealed nothing untoward. But that he required a scan demonstrates genuine concern about their key playmaker.

To the notion that Sexton might now be wrapped in cotton wool, Gatland said:

“That’s why both ‘10s’ aren’t involved on Tuesday. Owen (Farrell) got a bit of a dead leg last night and Johnny’s hamstring tightened up, so we have to make sure they are right.” But Sexton has not, according to the coach, played enough rugby before the series commences. “He is going to need to play again before the first Test.”

Hence, Stuart Hogg partners Conor Murray at half-back, with the converted Scotland fullback set to benefit from a renewal of the Test midfield partnership of four years ago, Jamie Roberts and, captain again, Brian O’Driscoll, outside him.

Richie Gray is the fourth player to back-up from last Saturday’s win, while Corbisiero and Grant go straight into the starting lineup and bench respectively and, interestingly, Seán O’Brien moves to blindside alongside Jamie Heaslip and Justin Tipuric in the backrow.

‘New combinations’
These are certainly no dirt-trackers. “No, not at all,” said Gatland, who admitted that ideally they wouldn’t want to have experimented as much as they did against the Reds. “For us to put a team together at short notice, who hadn’t played together before, with new combinations, to come away and win is a real credit to them.

“For us now, ideally we’d have another couple of warm-up games but we need to start thinking about the Waratahs and putting a side together with more potential combinations ahead of the first Test. Our original thought was to look at Tuesday then back players up, but that hasn’t been possible at the moment.”

Perhaps not co-incidentally, Bowe and Manu Tuilagi were both asked to back up twice in four days last Saturday and both suffered injuries, while this is effectively North’s third game in seven days.

Injuries apart, the Lions head coach couldn’t be happier with where they are at, with the Reds game “exactly what we wanted. We would like a couple more lead-in games, and for the first two games to be a bit tougher than they were, but that’s what happens on tour – you’re not dealing with tough teams all the time.

“So we’ll have to see what Tuesday night is like. The Waratahs are missing a lot of players as well, so how tough are they going to be? The Brumbies are different – they will be tough before that first Test.”

Have a go
Glad as Gatland was to have the derring-do Reds have a go from everywhere on Saturday, he wasn’t expecting a similar roll of the dice from the Wallabies come the first Test back in Brisbane a fortnight hence, not least as Quade Cooper won’t be setting the tone in his own inimitable style.

Although Robbie Deans won’t formally announce the six players to be added to the Wallabies squad, it’s been confirmed that while Kurtley Beale will be one of them, Cooper won’t be.

The rugby world would be a duller place without Cooper, and the tour will be henceforth, but it was fun while it lasted.