British and Irish Lions 2013: Lions lose swagger as injuries sees momentum shifts back to Wallabies
O'Connell injury blow for tourists while Aussie midfielders find fitness and Horwill reprieved
Yesterday, or maybe the day before, all the Lions' troubles seemed so far away: the first Test was safely in the bag, the Wallaby back division had been reduced to its component parts and James Horwill, their indispensable captain, was up to his eyeballs in disciplinary trouble. How long ago it seems. Today, the momentum appears to be shifting towards Australia at a rate of knots.
The tourists have lost Paul O'Connell, their most experienced forward and the man best equipped to handle Horwill, who, after being cleared – somewhat mystifyingly, it has to be said – of stamping on the face of the Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones in the opening minutes of the Brisbane Test, is certain to play with the passionate vigour of a reprieved man in the second act of this three-part drama, which will unfold here on Saturday. The Irishman fractured a bone in the lower part of his right arm at the weekend and will play no further part.
The Lions have just about given up on the England loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero too, albeit not permanently. One of the best-performing tight forwards in Brisbane, he suffered a calf injury early in the game, played "through" it for 45 minutes and, possibly as a direct result, is most unlikely to feature this weekend. According to Graham Rowntree, the Lions scrum coach, Corbisiero stands a better chance of making the Sydney Test in 11 days' time – a match that could easily prove decisive.
O'Connell may return home pronto, thereby following the well-trodden path of the stricken props Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins. On the other hand, he may do as Rowntree wishes and stay on – a decision that would allow the Lions to continue tapping into the Munsterman's vast reservoir of hard-earned wisdom. "I'd love him to stick with us," said the coach, "but it's down to him."
While the Wallabies had some negative injury news of their own – the high-calibre wing Digby Ioane and the route-one centre Pat McCabe are out of the series with shoulder and neck problems respectively; the gifted full-back Berrick Barnes will not play in the forthcoming game because of concussion – they were far happier with the progress of their first-choice midfielders, Christian Leali'ifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Both were hurt in Brisbane; both are expected to recover in time for Saturday's set-to.
If Rowntree felt obliged to play the diplomat with regards to Horwill's unexpected acquittal – "It's happened, so we move on: I'm not one for antagonising people, I can't change anything and I have enough to worry about," he said, sounding like some cauliflower-eared Lord Carrington – he could not hide his bitter disappointment at the loss of O'Connell, who led the Lions in South Africa four years ago and was a very senior figure in this party.
"It's a massive blow to us," he confessed. "Paul is one of the best locks of them all and he's been in the form of his life – I don't think I've ever seen him fitter. He's been such a good leader for us, without stamping over Sam Warburton [the tour captain]. I do think this will bring us together, though, and anyway, Geoff Parling has been exceptional. You can take it he'll start in Paul's place this weekend. He's much more than a line-out forward: he's a very clever footballer who is getting better and better. As he's had to do in a squad as good as this one."
Assuming Corbisiero misses this weekend's proceedings, the inexperienced Saracens prop Mako Vunipola will move from bench to starting line-up. Those who have been captivated by Vunipola's rampaging round-the-field contributions during this tour will not be overly alarmed, but he is nowhere near as sound as his fellow red-rose prop in scrummaging technique and will be seen by the Wallabies as a potential source of penalty opportunities.
When the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, withdrew Corbisiero (right) and his fellow first-choice prop Adam Jones midway through the third quarter in Brisbane and sent on Vunipola and Dan Cole in their stead, the balance of set-piece power swung the Wallabies' way. It seemed at the time that the substitution call was not the greatest tactical move in Gatland's career, and while Rowntree did not for a moment question the decision with the aid of 20-20 hindsight, he did admit that the events of the last half-hour had given him cause for concern.
"There were some technical aspects I wasn't happy with," the coach acknowledged, "but, to be fair, the players weren't happy when they came off, either. There were some pivotal moments at the set piece and the last scrum nearly killed us. It's my job to get it sorted."
At least the Lions have Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, back on the alley, so to speak. The England centre plays against the Melbourne Rebels today after recovering from a shoulder knock so severe that it damaged nerves in his neck. Yesterday, he revealed just how close he had come to following Healy and Jenkins, the most serious early-tour casualties, on an immediate flight back to Heathrow.
"After I hurt my shoulder in the game against Queensland Reds, I couldn't move my arm," the Leicester midfielder said. "There was no power there. I've had shoulder injuries before, but not as bad as this one. I was given seven days to show some improvement and I was gutted at the thought of going home, because that would have been the most disappointing moment of my career. Fortunately, the strength came back 20 or 25 per cent in that time, so the doctors gave me another week."
Hence his appearance against the Rebels in the final midweek game of the tour. The Lions coaches are hoping and praying he goes well and walks off the field intact, for judging by the way things are unravelling on the fitness front, he could well be needed for one of the remaining Tests. Has he ever played prop, does anyone know?
INS AND OUTS: Australia and Lions headcounts
Adam Ashley-Cooper: Expected to be fit for Saturday after undergoing scans on s houlder.
Christian Leali'ifano: Recovering well after suffering blow to head in first Test.
Pat McCabe: Out after being carried off in neck brace on Saturday.
Digby Ioane: Also misses remainder of series after damaging his shoulder in first Test defeat.
Berrick Barnes: Fly-half misses second Test with concussion.
* BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS
Paul O'Connell: Misses rest of the tour after fracturing his arm.
Alex Corbisiero: Very doubtful for Saturday's Test due to a calf injury
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