Injury problems mount as Lions begin to experiment

Injuries, the blight of any and every Lions tour. First Cian Healy, then Gethin Jenkins, now we have Tommy Bowe, clinging for dear life to stay on the tour but sadly his chances are slim.

Bowe broke his hand against the Queensland Reds on Saturday but has had a metal plate inserted into his hand. The prognosis is that he may be fit to play in two weeks time, realistically meaning that the First Test is too soon for him, but there are no guarantees that it will be that quick. In the meantime Simon Zebo has been called up as cover.

Manu Tuilagi also caught a knock against the Reds, he suffered a ‘stinger’ early in the first half but should be available again soon.

The real worry for the Lions is the fly half situation; both Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell are suffering with slight knocks. Sexton has a tight hamstring while Farrell has a dead leg, neither has been training.

There is much talk about the fact that Stuart Hogg is playing at fly half tomorrow, the reality is though that it was always a very likely scenario. It was flagged up before the squad left that Hogg may start one game at 10 just to give the other two a breather, and this would always have been the game earmarked for that – this has always been likely to be an easy win and a good chance to rest the pair.

It is the wrong part to focus on, what needs to be focused on is just how vulnerable the Lions are to an injury at fly half, particularly to Sexton. In the event that one of these injuries does turn out to be more significant than has been disclosed, who can the Lions call on?

There are plenty to choose from, Toby Flood, Freddie Burns, Dan Biggar and Ian Madigan to name a few, but how many of that list are ready to be involved in a Lions Test match? James Hook is an option, and one that you would feel could slot into that environment, however he does not seem to be on Warren Gatland’s good side at all.

As was said at the beginning, injuries can be the blight of any Lions tour. Look at the second test in 2009. There can be no doubting that injuries to Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll played a major factor in the Lions downfall.

The scrum, which the Lions had dominated that day, had to go uncontested, and the Lions midfield at the final whistle read; Ronan O’Gara at 10, Stephen Jones at 12 and Tommy Bowe at 13, not exactly a first choice midfield.

The Lions have been fortunate so far, injuries to Healy and Jenkins have been offset by the form of Mako Vunipola, while the arrival of Alex Corbisiero, who starts tomorrow, and Ryan Grant (on the bench) ensures that quality remains in the position.

The loss of Bowe is a blow but Gatland will hope that the probable return to fitness of Rob Kearney will offset that to an extent, the possibility of Kearney and Halfpenny starting at Suncorp on the 22nd is very real.

They can ill-afford to lose any other potential Test players though, particularly those fly halves. It is something that the players must push to the back of their minds though, they must focus purely on delivering for the team and in the process furthering their own Test credentials.

From that point of view there are a number of players who will be looking to show some late form to the coaching staff tomorrow, particular at prop where Alex Corbisiero has his big chance to press a claim after flying in from Argentina over the weekend, either he or Ryan Grant will be in the Test 23, he has the first opportunity, he must grab it.

On the other side Dan Cole will be desperate to try and pull ahead of the splendid Adam Jones, while at hooker Richard Hibbard will need to hit his lineouts and generally catch the eye to move beyond Tom Youngs, who has been outstanding.

Behind them Ian Evans is probably 5th out of five in the second row stakes but one big performance can change all of that. Richie Gray alongside him is doubling up from Saturday and knows that tomorrow is probably his last big chance to force himself into the Test side.

The back row of O’Brien, Tipuric and Heaslip all have huge claims at a Test place. There more than anywhere a players Test place can be affected by a good or bad performance or an injury to someone, it is incredibly finely balanced in the back row.

Conor Murray has work to do at scrum half, he is probably just behind Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs in the pecking order but he knows Gatland likes his style, if he can guide Hogg at fly half he will do his chances no harm.

So to Hogg, he knows he is unlikely to start the Test but with an impressive showing at fly half will demonstrate valuable versatility that could make him a very useful option on the bench, Sean Maitland at full back behind him finds himself in a similar position.

The rest of the three quarters are on final check up for the Tests it seems. Following the injury to Bowe, Alex Cuthbert looks a likely starter on the wing and with George North on the opposite wing and Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll in the centres it feels very much like dress rehearsal time.

As ever though, all of that could change in an instant. Let us hope that it does not.

Lions XV vs Combined New South Wales/Queensland Country XV:

15. Sean Maitland (Scotland) 14. Alex Cuthbert (Wales) 13. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland) 12. Jamie Roberts (Wales) 11. George North (Wales) 10. Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 9. Conor Murray (Ireland); 1. Alex Corbisiero (England) 2. Richard Hibbard (Wales) 3. Dan Cole (England) 4. Richie Gray (Scotland) 5. Ian Evans (Wales) 6. Sean O’Brien (Ireland) 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales) 8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).

Replacements: 16. Rory Best (Ireland) 17. Ryan Grant (Scotland) 18. Matt Stevens (England) 19. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) 20. Toby Faletau (Wales) 21. Mike Phillips (Wales) 22. Jonathan Davies (Wales) 23. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales).

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