Only a couple of Englishmen are expected to feature in the Lions team for next week’s First Test, but there will be no shortage watching from the sidelines.
Last night Christian Wade and Brad Barritt became the third and fourth players to be summoned from England’s tour to Argentina as concerns grow about the fitness of George North and Jamie Roberts.
Roberts, the one specialist inside-centre selected by head coach Warren Gatland, suffered what appeared to be a serious hamstring strain a dozen minutes from the end of a convincing 47-17 win over a highly physical New South Wales Waratahs team. With the Irish wing Tommy Bowe already out of the First Test with a busted hand, and the Welsh strike-runner North struggling with a hamstring problem, the tourists’ first-choice three-quarter line could be hard-hit.
Initial reports suggested Roberts had torn his hamstring, but Lions sources were quick to play down this diagnosis. There was a good deal of confusion. “The medics thought it was a hamstring injury,” reported Gatland, “but Jamie told them he’d never had that kind of injury and wasn’t sure.” Roberts recently qualified as a doctor. Perhaps orthopaedics are not his strong point. Roberts later tweeted “#Rice”, which stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation.
If the Welshman is ruled out of the Brisbane Test, the Lions would have to think long and hard about pairing his fellow countryman Jonathan Davies, one of the outstanding figures in this comprehensive win, with the former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll in midfield. Whatever happens, the balance of the tourists’ back-line would change, and might even influence the Wallabies’ selection outside the scrum.
Gatland congratulated his players on their iron discipline in the face of some overt physicality from the Waratahs. “We’d spoken from the outset about our half-backs [Mike Phillips and Jonathan Sexton] being tackled late or hit off the ball, and we tried to communicate that to the officials through Sam Warburton [the Lions captain] on the field,” he said.
“It would have been so easy for someone to throw a punch after being taken late. If that had been picked up, there would have been a citing. Part of the game at this level is how you respond to the niggle. I thought the players were a credit to the shirt, because there was some provocation out there.”
The coach reacted rather cleverly to the first signs of a concerted Australian wind-up ahead of the Test series – newspaper comments by the former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer about perceived Lions “cheating” at the scrum.
“I think it’s a sad indictment of the media world that someone like Bob is rolled out,” Gatland said, keen to make his point without engaging in the traditional “war of words” routine. “He deserves more respect, given what he’s achieved in the sport. I don’t think he knows much about Twitter or Facebook, to be honest, and for him to be subjected to a tirade of abuse [on them]… I don’t think he deserves that.”
When asked about the implications of Davies’s fine performance yesterday, Gatland said he would have no issues playing him at inside-centre in the forthcoming Test in Brisbane. “It’s nice when you go into a dressing room and hear someone like Brian O’Driscoll say: ‘Man, how good was Jonathan Davies?’ ” he remarked.
All the same, the Lions could do without this latest injury hassle having already lost Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy. Gatland and company took a risk in bringing so few career midfielders to Australia. The gamble is in danger of backfiring on them.