George North and Manu Tuilagi in doubt for first Test against Australia with injury
George North and Manu Tuilagi are major doubts for the first Lions Test against Australia in Brisbane next week.
Neither has been named in the Lions side to take on the NSW Waratahs on Saturday with head coach Warren Gatland rueing the fact that the physical battering his players have taken has prevented him from naming a shadow Test XV.
There will be at least 11 possible Test starters in a strong line-up but the potential loss of two such powerhouse players, with North’s hamstring and Tuilagi’s shoulder the concern, would be a blow to the Lions. Neither has been ruled out, but time might be against them.
“By the time next Saturday comes around they might all be fit but one or two of them are possibly going to be ruled out because they are not fit enough early in the week. There are one or two who are a little bit sore,” said Gatland.
North’s absence would be particularly wounding as he has been the stand-out performer, his forceful running from deep not only giving himself try-scoring opportunities but creating enough havoc on which others prosper.
Tuilagi has also shown well, and could expect to be the back-up centre in the match-day squad.
There are other bumps and bruises in camp, notably the sore groin sustained by Brian O’Driscoll on Tuesday against the Combined Country.
The Ireland centre, though, is fully expected to be fit. The Lions have taken the sensible precaution of standing him down.
“It is only right that we manage Brian,” said Gatland. “He is a bit sore and we need to keep him fresh.”
O’Driscoll remains a pivotal figure for the Lions.
Ireland’s Tommy Bowe continues to undergo rehabilitation for his broken hand.
That takes three centres out of the selection equation for Tuesday’s game against the Brumbies, which is why England’s Billy Twelvetrees was summoned from Argentina on Wednesday night.
He is set to start in Canberra as the Lions cross fingers and husband their resources.
It is the back line that needs succour and protection. They have taken a battering while the forwards have returned a clean bill of health.
Gatland admitted that he would have wanted to give his preferred Test team a run but injury and selection conundrums have denied him that opportunity.
“Ideally you would like to go close to a shadow team,” said Gatland, whose hand has also been forced by that dubious opening game in Hong Kong, which has put so much out of kilter here.
“It’s something that we’ve not done because there has been rotation in the squad and we are undecided on a few positions.
"We don’t want to pick up any more knocks or injuries. The game’s physicality has stepped up a level from 2009 in South Africa and players handling two games in a week is tough. You might need bigger squads in the future.
“The backs have tended to take most of the punishment, probably because of the way we have been playing.
"We have been moving the ball a lot and playing a heck of a lot of rugby. It has taken its toll.”
Gatland also insisted that captain Sam Warburton must fight for his place in the back row against Australia and that the captaincy carries with it no guarantees.
Gatland has yet to nail down his preferred pack, especially in the back row.
“The back-row selection is a headache,” said Gatland. “We have far from made up our minds as regards the loose forwards.
" Everyone is firing, and if you look at the talent we have there, you saw Sean O’Brien’s carrying from six, and we know he can play seven, we know, too, what talent and ability Tom Croft adds and then there is the devastation defensively and tightness Dan Lydiate can bring.
"There is great variety among the loose forwards. The two No8s also bring different skills to the table.
"It’s going to be a long night making that selection decision. I have been 100 per cent consistent. It is about picking the best players. But Sam is well aware of all this.”
Warburton had his first game in seven weeks against the Reds and was a bit off the pace. This weekend should help blow away any cobwebs and help groove his game.
“I always think the more games I have, then the better I tend to play,” said Warburton. “There is still a lot to prove.”
There was heartening news for the Lions in the recovery of their only two specialist fly-haves, Jonny Sexton (hamstring) and Owen Farrell, both of whom feature against the Waratahs, as does Rob Kearney on the bench. The Ireland full-back has missed the first four games with a hamstring injury.
The Wallabies have released two NSW players, back-rower Dave Dennis and centre Rob Horne, back to the Waratahs, plus prop Scott Sio and forward Peter Kimlin to the Brumbies.
The Australians are finally getting the message. This is meant to be a meaningful tour, not a preamble to a Test series.