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Warburton injury a body blow

The news that Sam Warburton is out of the 3rd Lions Test due to his hamstring injury will have been a hammer blow to the morale of the squad.

In the Second Test on Saturday the captain delivered a performance that almost ridiculed anyone that had doubted his right to be there.

Warburton was everywhere, barely a breakdown seemed to occur without some limb or other belonging to the 24-year-old wreaking havoc, while three turnovers showed both his ability and the more normal refereeing style of Craig Joubert compared to Chris Pollock in the First Test.

It was no coincidence that Australia’s try came after Warburton had to be withdrawn through injury, his missing doggedness at the breakdown just allowed them to build up momentum at that crucial point in the game.

With Paul O’Connell also ruled out of the tour the Lions face a real leadership void, something that will be exacerbated should James Horwill be cleared in his ‘re-hearing’ for stamping on Alun Wyn Jones in the first Test.

It means that Brian O’Driscoll will almost certainly be captain in the 3rd and Final Test, just the second time he will have done so in a Lions Test, while the likes of Geoff Parling and Alun Wyn Jones become even more critical from a leadership point of view.

Who replaces Warburton will be a tough selection decision for the coaches, they have the option of either Justin Tipuric or Sean O’Brien. Tipuric would certainly dominate the breakdown better than O’Brien, while his link play with the backline would also be a benefit.

However with the selection of a big ball carrying centre likely, the added ball carrying of O’Brien may appeal to Warren Gatland and his henchmen. It is expected that the tactics will be more aligned to what we had expected early in the series with the Lions sending in big ball carriers to make holes with the more subtle talents of Sexton, O’Driscoll and Halfpenny playing off that, O’Brien would certainly add to that ball carrying.

The expectation of a more direct approach stems from the assumption that Jamie Roberts will start after Gatland announced that he expects the giant centre to start. With Tommy Bowe and George North now both reassuringly fit the need for a substitute specialist winger is removed, meaning that an opportunity is available on the bench for an impact player such as Manu Tuilagi, quite a change of emphasis.

Alex Corbisiero is also expected to fit, there is much debate surrounding the rights and wrongs and ups and downs of Mako Vunipola’s scrummaging but what most would agree on is that Corbisiero’s is stronger and that if he is fit he starts.

The loss of Warburton hurts though but both he and Warren Gatland must feel rightly proud that it does. They have both been given a grilling over Warburton’s perceived form but he has shown in the Test matches that he is a true ‘Test Match Animal’.

The challenge for the Lions now is to perform without him, to perform for him.

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