The Lions: Manu Tuilagi and George North knocks give Warren Gatland a headache

Centre and wing are doubts for Test opener so Zebo to make debut against Waratahs

Sydney

The pressure is intensifying, the injuries are mounting and the clock is ticking: the Lions have only 160 minutes of playing time left to them before the big decisions on form and fitness must be made. Warren Gatland, the head coach, indicated that two important backs – the Test front-runner George North and the prime "impact" player Manu Tuilagi – might be struggling to make the cut for the first meeting with the Wallabies a week on Saturday. If it is not yet a case of panic stations, rear ends are definitely beginning to squeak.

When Gatland announced his side for Saturday's meeting with a New South Wales Waratahs outfit that suddenly looks a lot more dangerous than it did – the unexpected release of two senior players from the Wallaby camp, the centre Rob Horne and the flanker Dave Dennis, will beef up the home side significantly – he stressed that selection for the Brisbane Test had not been discussed.

But there was at least a whiff of decisive intent about the shaping of the pack, with the two form props in the party, Mako Vunipola and Adam Jones, and the most experienced locks, Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell, forming the body of the tight-forward unit. With Jamie Heaslip, the Irish No 8, holding his place after starting the midweek runaround against the wannabes and might-have-beens of the Combined Country XV in Newcastle, the men currently in possession of the shirts have every chance of driving home their advantages.

It is a very different story behind the scrum, however. North picked up a hamstring strain on Tuesday and was not considered for the Waratahs fixture; Tuilagi has yet to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered early in last weekend's victory over the Queensland Reds; and Brian O'Driscoll, the squad's kingpin figure, has a minor groin problem. While the latter is not thought to be a serious concern, the others are well worth worrying about.

"Brian could play against the Waratahs but if he gets another knock he could miss the Test, so we're not going to risk that," the coach explained. "He's been great on tour, but he's 34 now and we have to be smart in managing him. We need to make sure he's fit for when he's next required." Then came the killer coda. "There are also one or two who are a little bit sore and who may be out of contention for Brisbane because they won't be fit enough early in the week."

All this explains why Simon Zebo, the "now for something completely different" wing from Ireland, has been thrown into the Waratahs game within days of joining the squad as cover for his broken countryman Tommy Bowe, and why the versatile goal-kicking midfielder Billy Twelvetrees has been summoned from the England tour of Argentina. Both are blessed with rich talent, but a Lions Test at this stage of their careers might easily frazzle them. Gatland needs his medical staff to get North right for next weekend. Badly.

Zebo's try against Wales on the opening weekend of the Six Nations in February was quite something – he may have been the first wing in union history to pull off a genuinely convincing impersonation of Diego Maradona in completing a touchdown – marked him out as something special, and he was marginally unlucky to miss out on a place in Gatland's original selection. Now, with Bowe recovering from surgery on a busted hand and Alex Cuthbert of Wales in unconvincing form, he has the chance to make a name for himself.

"Simon has a personality that will flourish within this Lions party," the coach said. "He's in a no-lose situation here. He can go out there against the Waratahs and enjoy himself, and if he plays well he puts his hand up, doesn't he? I think it will be great for him."

Much to the tourists' relief, Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell, the Lions' only specialist outside-halves, have been judged fit to play a part in proceedings at the Sydney Football Stadium. But Farrell still appeared to be struggling with his "dead" leg during kicking practice – a sign that the rigours of the tour are taking their toll. According to Gatland, the physicality levels are up on four years ago, when the Lions visited South Africa.

Robbie Deans' unexpected release of Horne and Dennis for this weekend's contest – the Wallaby coach has also made the prop Scot Sio and the flanker Peter Kimlin available to the Brumbies for the match in Canberra on Tuesday – is not designed to soften things up for the Lions. "It's a good opportunity for those players to have a run against us and go back into camp with a bit of information for the Wallabies as well," Gatland remarked with a wry smile.

 



Anxious Aussies hand out hats

The Aussies are trying to minimise the effect of the massed ranks of red-shirted Lions fans during the series – a strong contributing factor to the tourists' victory in Brisbane 12 years ago.

This time, thousands of gold- coloured safari hats, known as "lion-hunting pith helmets", will be handed out to the home crowd. "We were caught unawares in 2001, when the 'sea of red' was a dominant feature in the Gabba Test," admitted Bill Pulver, the CEO of the Australian Rugby Union. "The Wallabies felt like they were playing away and we don't want a repeat of that in 2013." It seems Gatland and company are not the only ones in "squeaky bum" territory.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam