Waiting on the wings and praying for a place on the team to face the Wallabies
Gerry Thornley gets the views of Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo
Tommy Bowe will hope to recover on time for the second test. Photograph: Getty
A bit like the backrow, the permutations in the back three are endless; the difference being that the outside backs are an altogether different mix of form and injuries. In amongst them are now three Irish players for whom the remainder of the tour could go any way.
Were all well and on form, it would probably be three from four. There’s Rob Kearney, the Test fullback from four years ago in South Africa and a big-game player of physical strength who gives a left-footed option from the back. George North is perhaps the Lions’ likeliest gamebreaker. Tommy Bowe, whom played every minute of the last Test series, would surely have been accommodated given his big-game experience and sheer class. But then there’s also Leigh Halfpenny, now an established Test fullback as well as being a world-class goalkicker.
Also waiting in the wings, so to speak, are Alex Cuthbert, who now looks likely to start next Saturday, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and now, of course, the newly arrived Simon Zebo.
To complicate matters, Kearney only makes a belated tour entry as a replacement today after recovering from a grade one hamstring tear, while North is in real danger of being sidelined from the first Test in Brisbane after aggravating a hamstring strain last Tuesday in the routine but costly win over the Combined Country.
If he’s ruled out, he would join Bowe in the stands next Saturday. That would be quite a double whammy for the Lions, as they would have been the first-choice wingers given the tourists’ wide game and heavy use of wingers as target runners through the middle. But with the prognosis on Bowe suggesting he could play in the second Test with a plate inserted in his broken hand, both could therefore re-enter the fray a week later in Melbourne for the second Test.
In the interim, what will the back three be a week hence? Looming over them all is Halfpenny. As Kearney noted yesterday “his 11 from 11 hasn’t helped me hugely either but there’s a lot to happen yet on this tour”. Indeed, but Halfpenny’s remarkable 11 kicks from 11 against the Force in Perth, including six conversions from wide out, and 14 from 15 to date, means he has to start.
Moved to the wing
Were Halfpenny moved to the wing, Kearney’s chances of making the Test team would shorten dramatically. However, Halfpenny’s selection from the start at fullback today has not helped Kearney’s cause though by extension, it has probably helped Bowe (with the second Test in mind) and the other wingers, including Zebo, for while Kearney has played on the wing, he’s assuredly being viewed as a fullback.
“It’s still in my sights,” said Kearney of the Test spot. “If I had got the start this week and maybe they looked at different combinations it might have been a little bit more in my sights then. Anything can happen this weekend: someone could go down after two minutes and rejigging goes about. Certainly it’s probably a little bit less likely in the last couple of days.”
In any event, his tour will start today – and amid his mixture of frustration and relief up until this juncture – better late than never. “Obviously if there’s one time in four years not to pick up an injury or a little niggle the start of a Lions tour is it. So my timing probably couldn’t have been any worse.
“I got a scan in Hong Kong and it could easily have gone either way; I could have been getting the first flight back to Dublin or going off with the lads to Australia. So it does give you a bit of perspective and then when you see Cian (Healy) and Gethin (Jenkins) having to head home you start to feel a little bit that luck might be on your side. And then this weekend to get the chance to put the jersey on again is a fantastic feeling; albeit it might be a little bit late.”
Warren Gatland’s patience and faith in him also helped Kearney. “I spoke to Gats in Hong Kong and he said if you need two weeks take them. When you have that sort of clarity there it makes it pretty easy to focus your own mind; you don’t start wandering too much. You do take a huge amount of solace from that and I suppose it spurs you on a little bit more to wanting to get fit that little bit quicker and repay that faith he showed you.”
His experience of four years ago, when emerging as one of the stars of the tour, ought to give him further comfort and strength, although he tries not to think of the past.
“Four years is a long time in rugby but when you do come back and you get the whole buzz of the Lions and everything it possesses it’s only natural it brings those memories back to you a little bit more. Your mind does wander a little bit and that enjoyment and just how special and different playing for the Lions actually is. But at the same time I don’t drift too far otherwise I lose sight of the present.”
In his enforced watching brief he’s had to bow the head and take the slagging from squad mates about being on holiday, but as he’s also an intelligent lad, it’s given him a good vantage point from which to compare the current squad with four years ago.
“I think it’s a much stronger squad,” he answered, unhesitatingly. “It’s younger, too, maybe but it still has that experience as well. I think what’s great about this squad is that there are so many Test players in it that anyone you could happily see on a field playing in a Test match against the Aussies and would still do a pretty good job, whereas maybe four years ago in South Africa you mightn’t have had that same depth in the squad so overall I do think it’s a stronger squad.”
Encouragingly, he’s running even more freely than he could have expected and has tempered any drive to rush things. “That’s where I’d like to think a little bit of experience will come into play too. I’m lucky that I am in a position where doing the basics and being consistent are rewarded. At the same time I know that I don’t have to come on to the field and make a 60-metre break, score two tries and knock over a few drop goals to put myself in the frame; you’ve just got to be consistent.”
If Halfpenny is the starting fullback next Saturday, and North is ruled out along with Bowe, then the wingers will most probably be Cuthbert, despite the likelihood of the Wallabies targeting the Welsh winger with balls in behind him as the Reds did a week ago, and Maitland. Or just maybe Zebo, for as ever with the laid back Corkman, one suspects his tour could go any way.
He brings a much improved game under the high ball, an eye for the try line and, of course, a big left boot as well. Yesterday, when shooting the breeze and smiling continually as he does on his first Lions’ media session, admittedly there was the alarming sight of Zebo walking in with a slight limp and an ice pack over the front thigh, which prompted one of the eagle-eyed present to inquire as to his well-being. “Everything is good. I’m going into the game with a clean bill of health. So, happy out. No worries.”
His whirlwind week had begun last Saturday in Boston when disembarking from the Irish team bus after their win over the USA Eagles to be told by the coaching staff that he had been called up by the Lions (who couldn’t, of course, reach him as he’d jumped into the hotel swimming pool a few days before with his mobile in his pocket).
There followed a three plane journey with fuel stops and delays before his arrival on Tuesday. So it would be a huge ask to hit the ground running today but, then again, an enviably cool temperament that seemingly never includes nerves can only help. Asked if it was realistic for him to make the Test team, he smiled once more and said: “Yea, of course. Why not? It’s a game of rugby. I’m going to go out and do what I do every time I play, and that’s enjoy myself, have fun playing rugby. I reckon if any player goes out and puts their best foot forward and shows what they are able to do then they have a chance. You never go out to try and have a bad game so if I go out and have a great game then I’ll surely be in with a shout I’d say. So, happy out.”--