Sam Warburton would not be the first British and Irish Lions captain to miss the start of a tour – the great Martin Johnson was secretly carrying an injury when he flew to South Africa in 1997 and failed to appear in either of the first two matches – but if the Welsh flanker is ruled out of this weekend’s curtain-up meeting with the Barbarians, he will not take comfort from history. Johnson was one of the giants of the ’97 party and had no peer as a front-jumping enforcer. Warburton? He has rivals coming at him from all directions.
The Cardiff Blues back-rower took no part in the Lions’ opening training session at the Aberdeen Sports Ground on the evocatively named Wong Chuk Hang Road because he had failed to shake off a knee problem picked up during a session before departure. “It’s just a bit puffy, that’s all,” said Rob Howley, the attack coach. “We wanted to give him time before Saturday. And anyway, the strength in depth we have among the loose forwards is there for all to see.”
In other words, the Lions hierarchy will be perfectly happy, if needs must, to set things rolling with another Welsh breakaway, Justin Tipuric, in the No 7 shirt. Warburton might not see it that way, however. Having spent most of the northern hemisphere season in better form than his countryman, Tipuric is considered to be a genuine candidate for the Test series in Australia, and as any plan to shift the captain to the other side of the scrum could easily be complicated by one of three formidably talented blind-side operators, there is little room for error. Or, indeed, for orthopaedic hassle.
Warren Gatland, the head coach, was due to name his starting team today: a line-up expected to be drawn from those players who played a full part in preparations back in the old country. Those tourists who joined up late after playing in various domestic and European finals – the likes of the Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll and his Leinster colleagues, together with half a dozen men of Leicester – will stake their initial claims for Test preferment when the party arrives in Wallaby country next week for games in Perth and Brisbane.
If Warburton’s situation is not a wholly new event in the annals of Lions touring, it may well be that the Barbarians will break fresh ground by playing “dry”. The most celebrated scratch side in the sport did put up much of a fight at Twickenham four days ago - you might argue that they laid back and thought of England instead of standing up and competing against them – and Gatland’s subsequent assertion that their performance might have had something to do with the quality of their socialising clearly struck home.
Derek Quinnell, a Lion of 1970s vintage who is managing the Baa-Baas on this Asian jaunt, declared that the players had decided to impose a drinking ban on themselves. “We went out last night for an hour with Carlsberg (the Danish brewer),” he reported. “I think they were under the under the impression that a few pints would be sunk, but about 90 per cent of the squad were on cola. They knew last weekend wasn’t good enough and it’s been a kick up the backside for them. Fair play to them, they’ve reacted well.”
Sergio Parisse, commonly lauded as the world’s finest No 8, will lead a much-changed side that looks stronger in pretty much every department than the one responsible for the watered-down performance at Twickenham. The Italian will be accompanied in the spine of the side by the Springbok hooker Schalk Brits, the masterly French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and an All Black outside-half in Nick Evans, the Harlequins playmaker. There are also starts for the New Zealand wing Joe Rokocoko and a couple of uncapped Wasps youngsters in Elliot Daly and Sam Jones.
According to David Young, another former Lion on Baa-Baas back-room duty, everyone involved was suitably chastened by the heavy defeat at the weekend. “We are not going to shy away from the fact that we all felt let down after the England game,” the coach admitted. “We didn’t play anything like we expected and we know we have to step things up. Preparation and training are spot on now. We’ve been concentrating on getting the basics right and earning the right to play rather than just going out there and chucking the ball around.”
Gatland and his Lions will be grateful for that. Things will be very serious indeed when they run up against two hardened Super 15 sides in Western Force and Queensland Reds in the coming days. They need a proper work-out here. Badly.