British and Irish Lions 2013: Manu Tuilagi's tour in doubt with Lions limping towards first Test
Nerve problems are complicating centre's shoulder injury and adding to gloom ahead of Saturday opener
The British and Irish Lions will go into this weekend's opening Test with the Wallabies in considerable discomfort, both physically and psychologically.
The tourists' immediate injury problems remain acute – in addition to the issues surrounding Tommy Bowe, Jamie Roberts and George North, there is a possibility that Manu Tuilagi might not last the trip – and their confidence has been dented by the 14-12 defeat by the ACT Brumbies.
It was still not clear after that blow to preparations whether North, the weapons-grade wing from Wales, would recover from hamstring problems in time to face Australia on Saturday. In his last pronouncement on the subject, Warren Gatland, the head coach, put his chances at less than 50 per cent. However, there has been an improvement in his condition over the last 48 hours.
Tuilagi has also improved – and sharply – over the last day, but is still struggling with shoulder damage that is also affecting the nerves in his neck. The human bowling ball from Leicester is highly unlikely to make the Brisbane Test – a significant blow, as the Lions hierarchy had seen him as a natural "impact" player off the bench – and his future participation is still a matter of debate.
So, too, is how badly the loss to a well-organised but inexperienced ACT Brumbies side will affect morale. "I can't tell at the moment if there will be a positive reaction to it," Gatland admitted. "We'll have to see. We felt we were building nicely with a lot of momentum. Now, we've taken a knock. Sometimes it's good to have a reality check, but there's a lot of people who are very disappointed with this performance."
Gatland and his principal aides in the coaching set up discussed the implications of this defeat – the Lions' first against provincial opposition since 1997 – immediately on returning to the team hotel, and were also talking through their Test selection ahead of Thursday's formal announcement.
For the players who directly suffered the pain of defeat, the next three days will be a stern test of character. "We spoke straight after the game and agreed that we can't mope around: we have to pick ourselves up straight away," said the England lock Geoff Parling, who made his mark as a replacement by saving the Lions' crumbling line-out from complete disintegration and was one of the principal voices in the dressing room as the post- mortem began.
"This hurts – it hurts like hell," he continued. "But you can't start feeling sorry for yourself in this environment, because there are some massive games coming round the corner. If people mope, it will spread. We need to face up to this and move on. We were playing against people who saw this as the biggest match of their lives. One of the Brumbies came up to me afterwards and said: 'I can retire now.' That's how much it meant to them. For us, it's not one to remember."
Later, one of the Lions coaches described Parling as "a natural leader". The tourists will need all the leadership they can get as the Wallabies loom into view. Sam Warburton, the Wales flanker, will have his captaincy skills tested to the limit, as will the other senior players in the squad – most notably the two previous Lions captains from Ireland, the centre Brian O'Driscoll and the lock Paul O'Connell.
As Gatland and his coaching staff were chewing the fat last night, there were still some serious selection issues under discussion. Even though the pack that started against the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney last weekend had the look of a Test unit about it, there is still a little room for manoeuvre. Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs, the two England front-rowers, have had exceptional tours so far, but they cannot be completely confident of seeing off the challenges of Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies were basking in unprecedented glory – not least their captain, Peter Kimlin, whose outstanding display at No 8 was one of the principal factors behind the provincial side's victory. He was returning to Wallaby camp today full of ideas about how the national team might prevail over the tourists.
"What will I take back with me? A winning attitude for one thing, and that will definitely help," he said. His coach, Jake White, sounded a similar note. "After the Lions' performance against the Waratahs, the Wallabies must have thought it would be an uphill battle for them," he commented. "Now, after watching this, they will be saying: 'This is doable. Victory is possible.'"
'Magic healing' helps Ioane's Brisbane hopes
Australia wing Digby Ioane is eager to prove himself against the Lions after winning his fitness battle in time for the opening Test in Brisbane on Saturday.
Ioane underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last month but recovered after drawing on what team-mate Adam Ashley-Cooper described as his "magical healing powers". The 27-year-old is likely to be selected in his favoured left-wing position when coach Robbie Deans names the Wallaby line-up.
"The knee is feeling good, it will be ready for this weekend. I just had to do the little things first to get it right but now I'm right to go. All I have to do now is get picked," he said.
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