Gatland sweats on Sexton fitness
Warren Gatland faces an anxious wait to see if fly-half Jonny Sexton can recover in time for the first Test against Australia.
Owen Farrell, the only other No 10 in the party, has a dead leg and, with 12 days until the first Test, the Lions have been forced into an emergency shuffle of their fly-half resources for the match against Combined Country in Newcastle tomorrow with neither specialist able to be selected.
Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg has been moved forward to take responsibility for directing operations in a position he last filled at school. There is no recognised cover on the bench, the Lions intending to press-gang either full-back Leigh Halfpenny or centre Jonathan Davies into service there if calamity were to befall Hogg during the game.
The Lions elected to take only two specialist fly-halves with them on tour, shrugging off criticism of the policy by pointing out that players in such a key position need as much game time as possible.
Jonny Wilkinson was one of those passed over even though head coach Warren Gatland phoned him on the eve of the squad announcement to sound out his plans and fitness status.
The Toulon fly-half was not available to travel with the squad due to commitments last weekend in the Top 14 French final. Any lingering chance that he might get an emergency call disappeared when he elected to have a minor groin operation last Monday.
Gatland said on Sunday that he would want Sexton to play a game before the Brisbane Test on June 22 and admitted he needed to wrap the stand-offs in cotton wool.
“That’s why neither fly-half is involved on Tuesday,” Gatland said. “We have to make sure they are right. Jonny will have to play again before the first Test.
"The scan showed that there is no tear, just that it is a little bit tight. Given that both fly-halves have been involved in every game, we are at the stage where we have to look after them and give them an opportunity for a rest.”
Injury continues to take the gloss off on-field success. The Lions have summoned wing Simon Zebo from Houston to cover for Ireland teammate Tommy Bowe, who underwent surgery on the hand broken in the 22-12 victory against Queensland Reds on Saturday.
It was initially feared that Bowe’s tour was over, however the surgeon has held out a remote chance that a plate inserted into the hand might see the Irishman back within a fortnight. “Once the plate is put in, the bones are fixed basically,” Gatland said.
Injuries have played havoc with the Lions best-laid plans. Ireland full-back Rob Kearney has yet to play although the Lions insist that he has a chance of facing the NSW Waratahs on Saturday.
Meanwhile, props Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy headed back home on Sunday as their replacements, Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant, were named in the squad to face Combined County. Corbisiero starts despite only arriving on Saturday following a 40-hour five-flight transit from Argentina.
Gatland has welcomed the arrival of Corbisiero into camp – “He was like a small kid in a lolly shop” – while the England prop, who said that he had a good night’s sleep despite the crossing of 13 time zones, spent Sunday mugging up all the calls for scrum, line-out and breakdown.
George North, who came on as a replacement for Manu Tuilagi against Queensland after the centre sustained a stinger to his right shoulder, said that the injury toll would not deter the Lions from upping their intensity in the build-up to the Test series. “We spoke about this at the start of the tour,” North said.
“People are going to get injured. That is the nature of how physically demanding it is. It is gutting to lose Gethin and Cian but that is what we will have to deal with as a squad.
“It shows the quality that we have, that we can drop in and drop out and still be as competent as we are. When it comes to fitness, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and just keep working hard. When you get up off the floor, you need to be as effective as you can.
“It has been a mental few weeks for the boys, a lot of travelling and a lot of rugby – it is like being back at the under-11 days when you used to play four games in one day – but that is just part of touring. You have to learn to adapt and recover for the games.”
Gatland wanted to arrive at this point with a view to playing his shadow Test XV in Sydney on Saturday, a dress rehearsal for the Test match a week later.
The Lions head coach admitted that he would have liked more preparation time. “Ideally we’d have had another couple of warm-up games but we need now to start thinking about the Waratahs and putting together combinations ahead of the first Test,” Gatland said.
“In an ideal world you would not have experimented as much as we did against Queensland. Our original thought was to look at Tuesday and then back players up but that hasn’t been possible.”
Gatland still has five or six positions to nail down. Does he know his test XV? “No, not at all,” he said, stressing that tomorrow’s side in Newcastle is far from what used to be termed a ‘dirt-trackers’ line-up, that is, the back-up team.
The side has potential Test combinations in centre pairing Brian O’Driscoll, who captains the side, and Jamie Roberts, reunited for the first time since their successful partnership four years ago in South Africa.
The back-row of Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric and Jamie Heaslip has legitimate aspirations to Test status.