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.”