Warren Gatland admits heavy toll amongst Lions’ outside backs is causing concern

Rob Kearney is set for his first tour appearance after recovering from hamstring trouble

Jamie Heaslip, will be hoping to rubber-stamp his Test place. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jamie Heaslip, will be hoping to rubber-stamp his Test place. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Fri, Jun 14, 2013, 09:14

This was always liable to happen, and far from being undercooked, the Lions are looking a little frayed around the edges. A week out from the first Test, the tourists have effectively lost one-third of a probable first-choice line-up, with the heavy toll amongst the outside backs perhaps, as Warren Gatland admitted yesterday, indicative of the way the Lions are keeping the ball in hand applying so much width to their game.

In addition to losing their first-choice loosehead, be it Cian Healy or Gethin Jenkins, for the remainder of the tour, the Lions are already resigned to being without Tommy Bowe for the first Test, with George North now emerging as a significant concern due to the hamstring he was stretching in the first half last Tuesday night against Combined Country.

Brian O’Driscoll has also been ruled out of tomorrow’s eagerly anticipated sell-out with the Waratahs and his former Leinster coaches, Michael Cheika and Alan Gaffney, although Gatland’s comments suggested they are being particularly protective of the venerable great one.

O’Driscoll could have played tomorrow according to Gatland, “but then if he gets another knock he could miss the first Test, so we are not going to risk that. Brian’s 34 now, and we’ve spoken before about managing him. He’s been great on tour for us. We’ve spoken to Brian and Paul O’Connell who have both been around a fair while. It’s about being smart in how we manage them, and we want to make sure they are fit for when next required”.

This in turn raises concern about North, not to mention Manu Tuilagi’s shoulder, which is why Billy Twelvetrees has been called in, and he will almost certainly start against the Brumbies next Tuesday in Canberra.

“I think that as you move from one tour to the next, you realise how tough it is, especially for the players,” observed the head coach. “The game’s physicality has increased on from 2009 in South Africa, it has stepped up a level, and players handling two games in a week is tough.

“It’s something we need to be mindful of. If you’re writing a report at the end of the tour, you need to consider whether there’s a case for bigger squads from the start because of this step-up in physicality.”

Catapult himself
Throw in Rob Kearney, who makes a belated tour entry off the bench tomorrow, and in the heel of the hunt Simon Zebo not only beats Kearney to the pitch but in making his first Lions start tomorrow, the Munster and Irish winger could catapult himself into the Test reckoning, albeit by dint of a very big game.

“He has only just arrived but he has already got a number of Irish team-mates that he can look to,” said Gatland. “He has sat down with the coaches and gone through some of the expectations of him. He’s got a personality that will flourish within the squad. He is in a no-lose situation – just go out there, enjoy yourself and play. If you play well enough, you put your hand up.”

Ironically, the seven loose forwards in the squad are not only staying fit and healthy, touch wood, but are giving Gatland a serious headache as to which three to perm against the Wallabies. Given Sam Warburton has played at blindside at Test level, and Seán O’Brien can play across the backrow, the permutations are endless.

‘A long night’
“Everyone is firing,” acknowledged Gatland, “and if you look at the talent we have there – Seán O’Brien’s carrying from six, and we know he can play seven, what talent and ability Tom Croft brings to the backrow for example, the defensive and depth Dan Lydiate brings. The two number eights bring different skills to the table. It’s going to be a long night making that selection decision.”

For sure the skipper needs a big game against the Waratahs, for history has taught us that Gatland is true to his word and won’t hesitate to make tough calls.

“I have been 100 per cent consistent about what I’ve said from day one, it’s about picking the best players. Sam’s well aware of that, and he had a good start against the Reds last week and this is another big game for him,” said Gatland.

“But let’s allow the game to unfold, rather than trying to predict and create some controversy about leaving one or two players out of the team.”

Indeed, Warburton’s performance against the Reds – by some distance the most searching examination the Lions have had – wasn’t as bad as generally portrayed, thanks in the main to being handed off by Luke Morahan and failing to convert North’s searing break into a try. But he led the pack, comfortably, in metres gained and also in turnovers won and it would be no surprise to see him have a big game and nail his Test spot, and likewise Jamie Heaslip, who has revelled in the more rarified Lions air and top-of-the-ground conditions.

In any event, it is just as big a game for Tom Croft, as it is for Alun-Wyn Jones as Paul O’Connell’s prospective secondrow partner.