Warren Gatland and his fellow members of the Lions hierarchy went into coaching conclave here last night following the loss of a third player in the space of 24 hours. The latest casualty was by some distance the most significant: Tommy Bowe, the Irish wing from County Monaghan, who suffered a broken hand a few minutes into the second half of a tough game against a dangerous Queensland Reds outfit and was immediately ruled out of the remainder of this 10-match tour.
Even before receiving a full medical bulletin, Gatland acknowledged that this was the end of the road for a player who won his first Lions Test caps in South Africa in 2009. “According to the medics he’ll probably need an operation,” he said. “I think you can deduce from this that he’ll play no further part. I would say that’s it as far as Tommy is concerned.”
With two loose-head props, Cian Healy of Ireland and Gethin Jenkins of Wales, flying back home today with ankle and calf injuries respectively, a British and Irish Lions party find themselves orthopaedically challenged once again. Repeatedly in recent tours, they have taken early blows on the personnel front. While the departures of Healy and Jenkins are unlikely to have too savage an impact – the form of the young Saracens forward Mako Vunipola has been sufficiently revelatory to make him a favourite for the first Test against the Wallabies, and there are sound reinforcements in Alex Corbisiero of England and Ryan Grant of Scotland – the demise of Bowe is a different kettle of calamity.
Simon Zebo, the off-the-wall wing from Ireland who scored one of the cleverest Six Nations tries in living memory back in February, was close to a place in the original party, but the bigger, stronger Tim Visser of Scotland would be more of a like-for-like replacement. Gatland and company will make a decision today.
Other bumps, bangs and strains arising from yesterday’s heavy-duty encounter were thought to be safely under control. Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball from Leicester, was bowled over himself by a ferociously committed Queensland defence and was off the field by the end of the first quarter, complaining of a Jonny Wilkinson-type “stinger” injury to his shoulder. There was another nasty scare when Jonny Sexton, nailed on for the No 10 berth in the opening Test with the Wallabies a week next Saturday, needed treatment for a stretched hamstring. Afterwards, Gatland insisted both were “fine”.
Being something of a mischievous figure, the coach took great pleasure in ruffling a few Australian feathers after the game. He mentioned, almost in passing, that he and his colleagues had spotted cameramen surreptitiously filming Lions training sessions in Perth ahead of last week’s match with Western Force. Gatland cheekily added that if there was any bluffing being done by his team, it was confined to the match-day 80 minutes.
Much of the Australian interest yesterday was focused on Quade Cooper, the midfield trickster who last year described the Wallaby environment as “toxic” and has not played international rugby since. His many supporters want him recalled to the Test squad currently preparing for the serious business with the Lions, and while he did not touch the heights in yesterday’s game, he did not look short of brilliant attacking ideas.
Asked for the umpteenth time whether he felt Cooper should be drafted in, the Reds coach Ewen McKenzie nodded. “I’ll answer that one the same way as I always do, because I’m biased,” he said. “I’d pick Quade every week.”
When Gatland was asked the same question, his reply was more nuanced. “If the Wallabies play Quade at 10, we’ll get the full bag of tricks and we’ll have to pay close attention to him,” he said. “If they play someone else, they could be more structured. Will the Wallabies try to run us off our feet in the way the Reds tried to do it here? I hope so, because I think we’ll be in pretty good shape physically when we get to the Tests. We’ve trained really hard and taken something out of our legs as a result, so for us to suck it up and come out ahead in this game, the toughest we’ll face outside of the series, bodes well.”