Saturday 21 October 2017

Corbisiero in dreamland after securing Lions starting berth

Alex Corbisiero has been included in the British and Irish Lions team named for Saturday's opening Test against Australia
Alex Corbisiero has been included in the British and Irish Lions team named for Saturday's opening Test against Australia

Andrew Baldock

England prop Alex Corbisiero will complete an unlikely journey from South America to Suncorp Stadium on Saturday when he makes his Test debut for the British and Irish Lions.

The Northampton-bound forward has edged out his England colleague Mako Vunipola and clinched a starting place against Australia.

And it comes just a fortnight after 24-year-old Corbisiero was summoned from England's Argentina tour as front-row cover following injuries suffered by Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins.

While Healy and Jenkins are now at home recovering, Corbisiero prepares for the biggest challenge of a career some observers felt was in grave danger of disintegrating due to knee problems. Those injury woes, though, are now all behind him.

"I just wanted to make the most of the opportunities I was given, try to put my hand up and let the coaches make the decision. I am absolutely thrilled to be involved this weekend," he said.

"I have just tried to focus on my own game, making sure my set-piece has been consistent and tried to be accurate and efficient around the park in everything I do.

"Every time I had some game-time (in Australia), I tried to make an impact and show what I was able to do. I am very glad the coaches have given me the nod.

"There have definitely been some dark times this season when you are sitting there and you are frustrated. But looking back now, there was light at the end of the tunnel and I made sure I was patient.

"Like I've said before, I am just looking forward, and anyone who put question marks over my career I am trying every week to try to prove them wrong, show them what I am capable of and that I've got a long future in this game."

Head coach Warren Gatland's line-up contains eight Lions Test debutants - Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, skipper Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, George North and Jonathan Sexton - although only three of those are up-front.

And there is a hard edge of experience elsewhere, provided by the likes of Irish pair Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell and Welsh tight-five forwards Adam Jones and Alun-Wyn Jones.

Three players - Tommy Bowe, Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi - were not considered because of injury.

Reflecting on the front-row selection, Gatland said: "Mako is pretty unlucky.

"We've looked at the weather conditions and potentially there is a threat of showers. I've no doubt that (Australia coach) Robbie Deans has looked at Mako technically at scrum time, so him coming off the bench will give us a huge amount of impetus.

"It's always going to be a tough contest there, but I think technically Alex is pretty good and perhaps there is a bit more of a combination there with Tom and Adam.

"There is no doubt that Mako was very unlucky, and he will make a big impact for us coming off the bench.

"A lot of players were rewarded for their performance last Saturday against the Waratahs. That was an extremely positive performance, and a lot of the side is made up from that team that played the Waratahs."

Gatland, though, is well aware that players not involved this weekend could easily be an integral part of his plans by the time the Test series finale dawns in Sydney on July 6.

"If you remember 2009, the midfield combination for the first Test (against South Africa) was Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll," he said.

"And for the third Test it ended up being Riki Flutey and Tommy Bowe in the centre, and I think we finished the match with (scrum-half) Mike Phillips at 12 as well.

"It is important that the rest of the squad stay focused. After the team announcement, we know there was some disappointment among the players, but it was just how those players went in and congratulated each other.

"There were a few disappointed (players), but we are very close knit at the moment and there is a really positive feel in the team."

Gatland revealed that he did not finalise his starting XV until today.

"We wanted to give everyone the biggest opportunity," he said.

"George North had to pass a fitness test that he went through yesterday morning. He had a good workout, came through that and we had to make sure there was no reaction from that.

"We have looked at picking the best possible team that we can to win the first Test."

And Warburton, the first Welsh Lions tour captain since Phil Bennett 36 years ago, underlined the squad spirit and work ethic that could underpin a Test series triumph.

"The boys who aren't involved have been very supportive. They know there is every chance they could get back into the Test team," Warburton said.

"It's the first one of three, so there is a long way to go and players have still got every chance of being involved.

"I can be perfectly honest and say I've not looked at any of the press or anything outside of the Lions tour. I think everybody has been the same.

"We've come into camp and the focus has been very much on ourselves. We have been concentrating on what we've got to do."

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