Wallabies to sleep a little easier as injuries blunt tourists' edge
Loss of three players will be more keenly felt by visitors as tour comes to a close.
Three players gone in the space of three days last week: if you wanted to encapsulate what Lions tours are about, then you had it in that little nutshell.
You hurriedly bring together players from four countries, or as many as you can assemble for the kick-off and, like cramming for an exam, you load as much gear on their backs and information into their heads as possible, and then off you go, knowing that by the time you get to the end of the line you'll have changed perhaps 20 per cent of your personnel.
When Tommy Bowe became the third man crossed off the 'available to play' list, in the second half at Suncorp Stadium yesterday, your mind drifted forward not to the first Test in the same venue in a fortnight, but to the third Test in Sydney two weeks after that. If it is still a live issue at that point, then it will be decided as much by who in red is still fit to stand up, as for the quality of rugby the tourists are producing then.
Two of the three casualties were certain Test starters: Bowe and Cian Healy. The third, Gethin Jenkins, would have made the match-day 23 only if the outstanding success of the tour so far, Mako Vunipola, was
struck down. It might not be unique in Lions history to lose three players in the one position, but if England's loosehead follows Healy and Jenkins out the door then the Wallabies will sleep a lot easier.
Already the hosts have a bit to worry about. The tourists – well most of them – have been together for over three weeks now, and with as many games under their belts they know what they're about. Mostly they still believe that when it comes to the Tests they can overpower their opponents and kick the goals – incredibly they are 100 per cent so far on Australian soil – to win the series.
Healy's loss has weakened them in this area though. They move down to New South Wales today for the run-out against NSW Country on Tuesday, and the talk is of looking forward. It was ironic that Jenkins was sent out front to give this message last week – hard luck on Healy but we have to move on – only to be the next victim himself.
The plan was to start the Leinster loosehead in the first Test and then drop Vunipola into the contest in the last quarter. Nobody was as happy to see him out of the picture than Robbie Deans for between Healy, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, two of whom thankfully are still standing, they had the capacity to do physical damage to the Wallaby front row, and psychological damage to the Australian cause.
The way the Healy issue was dealt with is worth revisiting, for in some quarters they had him dead and buried before he had even complained of feeling unwell.
In these pages a week ago we mentioned that as soon as the Lions landed in Australia there would be a choreographed sequence to the critics coming out with axes to grind. We thought it would be confined to coaches and past players, but then the Western Force scrumhalf Brett Sheehan got it up and running.
If you remember the pounding Ronan O'Gara took at the hands of his opposite number Duncan McRae in the Waratahs game on the 2001 tour then you may also recall the New South Wales captain Phil Waugh coming out afterwards with the following line: "We really gave it to them," he said at the time. "A lot of the Lions will have sore bodies and I hope the Wallabies give them a real thrashing."
At least that was after the game. Before a ball was kicked in Perth, Sheehan was declaring: "If we can't get the win we can hopefully hurt a few of their bodies."
He did better than that, he forearmed Healy in the mouth in the 17th minute of the first half, when the prop was pinned at the bottom of a ruck, and then reeled away complaining of cannibalism. What happened next was some gun-jumping journalism.
One man described the incident as "an alleged moment of madness by a player banned during the Six Nations for stamping on England prop Dan Cole."
If you didn't come away from that paragraph thinking first that Healy is a nutter with a bit of previous, and second that his case in Australia had yet to be heard, then you'd be in a minority we suspect.
In these cases of supposed biting you need a photo of the chow down moment, or video evidence of the sequence of events. And really you need bite marks. All those boxes were empty. In the absence of those your prosecution witness testimony would need to be compelling. Evidently it wasn't.
And yet the impression was conveyed immediately that Healy was bang to rights. He is hardly the most temperate man on the circuit, but neither would he be in the same category as say Dylan Hartley. It's also worth revisiting the Cole incident from the England game in February, for it appears to have influenced the reporting of Healy's issue with Sheehan last week. At the time I wrote that Healy was unlikely to get a long ban for the offence, on the basis that a) while his stamp on Cole was brutal, it wasn't cynical, and b) his intent, while showing disregard for the victim's leg, was to remove said limb from impeding Conor Murray's avenue to the ball – and obstructing the Ireland scrumhalf was exactly Cole's intention at the time.
This is not semantics. The IRB long since got the message out to referees that they were, to coin a phrase, to come down hard on players who gratuitously stamped on limbs protruding from a ruck. Had Healy been in this category then he would have had the book thrown at him. He wasn't, so he didn't.
At 25, he is young enough to tour again, but if he had come home from Australia with a hefty ban then his prospects for New Zealand in 2017 would be as ruptured as his ankle ligaments. His loss will be felt when the Test series starts. Already Warren Gatland has much of his team in mind for that. We wouldn't have given much for Richie Gray's form either for Sale or Scotland this season but he has hit the ground running in Australia and put in a good shift yesterday. The Scot is a bit cuddly compared to Paul O'Connell, but they are in pole position in the second row. Australia's lineout won't be as ropey as the Reds' yesterday but even so, firing Gray up at the front would unsettle any thrower.
At the moment the two issues facing Gatland are the make-up of his back row and midfield. It's funny how things work out: when Leinster ran out to face Biarritz in the Amlin Cup semi-final at the end of April, just before Gatland closed the boarding gate for Down Under, Jamie Heaslip wasn't even in the departure lounge. A man-of-the-match performance, decorated with two tries, changed the course of his summer. Gatland is wedded to Toby Faletau, whose consistency is awesome, but Heaslip's form has been outstanding and he will get better as the tour goes on.
If the coach has his No 8 down quick-time on his team sheets when he's selecting for Wales then Jamie Roberts isn't far behind. His combination with Brian O'Driscoll was one of the successes of South Africa four years ago, but Manu Tuilagi has confused the issue. Tuilagi's injury yesterday was dismissed as a stinger, and if that's the extent of it then the coach has some separating to do.
Meantime, he is dreading that the delayed run of injuries will become a flood. Jonny Sexton says his hamstring is fine, although it's the same one he tore against England. Rob Kearney's hamstring started out as no more than 'tight' but already Leigh Halfpenny has taken advantage of that situation to cement his spot when Brisbane rolls around again. Let's see how many new faces there are on tour by then.