Lions unfazed by scrum-half injuries

Back-room staff confident all three No 9s will be fit for first Test despite knocks

This is no time for a scrum-half crisis, so it comes as some relief that the Lions' back-room staff do not think they have one. Not yet, at any rate. Even so, the news that all three half-backs in the squad – Mike Phillips of Wales, Harry Ellis of England and Mike Blair of Scotland – are struggling for full health and fitness just a few days before the opening Test of the series against the Springboks was hardly the best of tidings. Needless to say, the best No 9 in the world, Fourie du Preez, is full of beans and ready to go for the South Africans.

Blair, who pulled out of bench duty ahead of Saturday's narrow victory over Western Province after turning an ankle in training and suffering a mild sprain, is still in the frame for tomorrow's match with the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, but will have to pass a rigorous examination before the match. There is no guarantee he will make it.

Ellis, who played the whole game at Newlands, was suffering from a chest infection yesterday. But the real concern surrounded Phillips, by some distance the favourite for the Test berth. On Saturday morning, he could be seen running gingerly on a patch of grass outside the team hotel, his efforts overseen by the senior doctor, James Robson, and the physiotherapist Prav Mathema. Yesterday, the medical team reported the Ospreys player had picked up some bruising and stiffness in his lower back.

Given that the Lions had no intention of running Phillips in Port Elizabeth, it does not much matter that his target time for recovery is later in the week. But if his intensive rehabilitation regime fails to bear fruit, the tourists will be forced into seriously rethinking their tactical approach against the Boks at King's Park.

"Injuries in one position are always an issue," said Robson's deputy, Dr Gary O'Driscoll, who has been on the medical staff of Arsenal Football Club since February. "We've met with the coaches and advised them as to the position, but we don't believe any of the scrum-halves will be unavailable for Test selection. The Port Elizabeth game is slightly different. That might be an issue for us."

Casualties from the Western Province fixture include the lock Nathan Hines, who has a calf injury; the flanker Martyn Williams, who has stitches in a gashed knee; and the full-back Rob Kearney, who appeared to have picked up a serious injury during the build-up to the hosts' second-half try but was later diagnosed as suffering from a "dead" leg. Kearney will definitely miss the game in Port Elizabeth tomorrow.

It was also confirmed that Andy Powell, the Welsh No 8, has been operating with crushed bones in his hand. "The X-ray showed nothing and the MRI scan showed virtually nothing," O'Driscoll said. "However, we used a very sophisticated, very expensive CT scan to establish the presence of a crush fracture. Years ago, such an injury would never have been picked up, and it won't stop Andy playing. It's simply a question of pain. When the adrenalin is flowing, this type of problem isn't much of a problem at all."

Meanwhile, there was an interesting take on the hotly competitive loose-head prop situation from the specialist scrum coach Graham Rowntree, who went out of his way to dismiss the theory that the Springboks might be seriously vulnerable at the set piece. The No 1 shirt is being contested by Gethin Jenkins of Wales and Andrew Sheridan of England: the first a thoroughly modern, round-the-field kind of prop; the second a heavy-duty scrummager of the kind the Springboks themselves once inflicted on their poor, unsuspecting opponents.

"I'm not worried about our scrum, but I'm not delighted with it by any means," Rowntree remarked. "At the same time, I don't see the Boks' scrum as a weakness. I just don't buy it." As for the notion that Sheridan might dine out on John Smit, the South African captain who has switched front-row positions from hooker to tight-head prop, he said: "With England, Andrew is often built up as the man to beat up the opposition at the scrum, and quite often it doesn't happen.

"People are always on about Andrew doing this or that, and unless he obliterates someone he is deemed to have failed. It doesn't always work out as expected. Last autumn, we were meant to kick the Australian scrum around, and they turned us over twice. I was embarrassed watching it."

Luke Watson, the Springbok back-rower who led Western Province against the Lions at Newlands, has agreed a two-year deal with troubled Bath and will move to the Premiership once his Currie Cup commitments are completed in the late autumn.


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