British and Irish Lions 2013: Shane Williams and Christian Wade are sticking plaster for Gatland
Coach patches up his Lions with six new faces as the tour gets serious
The Lions begin the second and, by an infinite distance, the more important half of their tour in the cold and damp of Canberra tomorrow with a side containing six players not included in the original 37-man party. One of them will be the new England wing Christian Wade, who did not expect to pull on the red shirt until 2017 at the earliest. Another will be the old Wales wing Shane Williams, who did not expect to do so ever again.
"Shane is playing in Japan, which means he can get here quickly," said the head coach, Warren Gatland, by way of explaining his decision to summon a 36-year-old Welshman who, however celebrated he may be, has not played a high-level game for more than a year. Gatland added that this unprecedented move was a sticking-plaster job, pure and simple. Williams will play against the ACT Brumbies on a "for one night only" ticket before leaving camp on Wednesday.
With Wade and two other red-rose reinforcements, the centres Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees, also starting in the back line, the shape of the Lions side for what is certain to be a difficult game against the most resourceful of the Australian Super 15 outfits comes as something of a shock. There is also an odd look to the front row, where the Scottish prop Ryan Grant and the Irish hooker Rory Best will join forces under the latter's leadership. Neither forward made the initial cut in April.
Williams, who put two tries past the Springboks in Johannesburg when the Lions last played a Test match four years ago, was summoned late on Saturday night local time when it became clear that the casualty rate among the current backs was threatening to wreck plans for the series with the Wallabies, which begins in Brisbane this weekend. The two leading wings in the party, Tommy Bowe and George North, have been under treatment for some days and are likely to miss the long-awaited date with the men in green and gold. Manu Tuilagi, a left-field option as a wide man, is also struggling for fitness, while Sean Maitland of Scotland is suffering the malign effects of playing consecutive tour games.
Stuart Hogg could have returned on the wing tomorrow, but he is needed at outside-half. Similarly, Rob Kearney is required at full-back. So how about Simon Zebo, the Irishman drafted in last week as cover for Bowe? He might conceivably be needed for bigger, better things, and must make do with a seat on the bench. Which leaves Alex Cuthbert and his fellow Welshman, the supercharged goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny. Anyone suggesting to Gatland that either man be risked ahead of the forthcoming business with the Wallabies would have received a very quizzical stare in response.
"One of the reasons we went for Shane is that he's still playing professional rugby – he's also been doing some boxing, although I hope those skills won't be needed against the Brumbies – and the fact that he's based in Japan makes it a lot easier from the geographical point of view," Gatland said. "This is going to be tough on a few players, but the people we've brought in from the England set-up know each other and Shane has Lions experience that will enable him to understand what we're trying to do.
"There's no way we're just sacrificing this game: the Brumbies have been laying up in camp waiting for us and they'll be difficult opponents, but the players in this Lions team have the chance to continue our unbeaten record and to put themselves in the spotlight at the same time, so the motivation will be there. They will feel a massive responsibility, because a Lions tour is about one player handing on the baton to the next.
"However, we've also had to peer through the looking glass at the Test. It's hard to ask people to play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, so we're trying to be proactive. We're pretty short in the back three positions and if we'd included someone for Canberra who then got hurt, you'd be asking why he wasn't rested. We see Shane as an answer for this game. If it turns out I've made the wrong call, you can have a crack at me. I won't mind."
The back-three issue is not the only one facing the coaches: there is not a fat lot of choice at centre, either. It may be that Twelvetrees, recently described by Nigel Davies, his boss at Gloucester, as "almost a blueprint for what you want at No 12 in the modern game", will play a significant hand for the Lions as events unfold over the next 19 days.
Gatland was deeply impressed by the midfielder when he attended an England squad session during this year's Six Nations and flew him here from Argentina when both Bowe and Tuilagi were hurt during the victory over Queensland Reds. Now that Jamie Roberts has fallen too – the Welsh centre was being scanned yesterday after breaking down with what appeared to be a hamstring injury in the closing stages of the weekend win against the Waratahs – his presence is valuable indeed.
"I'm here to contribute, otherwise there's no point," Twelvetrees said on being named in the starting line-up against a Brumbies side featuring the high-class full-back Jesse Mogg and the one-time Wallaby wing sensation Clyde Rathbone. "I haven't done anything yet, so my full focus is on this match. I want to play my own game and execute it 100 per cent."
Likely Lions: Gatland's first test choices
Another "Hobson's choice" situation. Brian O'Driscoll and Jonathan Davies, who have yet to start together on tour, are the men at the front of an ever-dwindling queue.
Jonny Sexton, owner of the squad's most creative mind, and Mike Phillips, the back-rower's dream of a scrum-half, were always likely to link up. Ben Youngs has mounted a challenge to Phillips, but as he starts tomorrow against the Brumbies, he looks destined for the bench in Saturday's Test.
Adam Jones has long been the favourite at tight head while Mako Vunipola's explosive performances on the other side have put him in the pound seats. There is still a debate at hooker, but Tom Youngs has made a strong case against the bigger, bulkier Richard Hibbard.
Why would anyone in his right mind break up the locking partnership of Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell, who performed with such ruthlessness against the Waratahs? Jones played at Test pitch for the first time on this tour while O'Connell is driven by the energy of the last hurrah. Formidable.
Nothing could be simpler after the Waratahs game. Tom Croft, Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip surely did enough, even though it will hurt Gatland to overlook Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
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