Warren Gatland will take chance to weigh up his Test 'possibles'
Maitland and Evans must show their mettle against Combined Country XV
It seems a little harsh for a player to find himself in the Last Chance Saloon so soon after opening time, but for a number of Lions – the Scotland back Sean Maitland and the Wales lock Ian Evans among them – Tuesday's relatively low-key game against a Combined Country confection halfway up the New South Wales coast is the biggest event of the tour to date. If they are to stand an earthly of playing against the Wallabies a week on Saturday, they must state their case now.
Maitland, in his first season as an international wing, will play the full-back role at the Hunter Stadium in Newcastle because his colleague in the Scotland team, Stuart Hogg, has been press-ganged into duty at outside-half. The Lions coaches have reached the point in the trip where their specialist No 10s require a little protection, especially as Jonathan Sexton is suffering from a minor hamstring issue and Owen Farrell picked up a dead leg while kicking six from six against the Queensland Reds two days ago.
But it is as a right wing that the New Zealand-born exile has a long-odds shot at Test selection, thanks to the broken hand suffered by Tommy Bowe in the Queensland game. Bowe underwent surgery here yesterday, and while the head coach, Warren Gatland, rowed back a little on his initial prophecy of doom – instead of confirming that the Ulsterman was out of the tour, he said there was a possibility of a return to action in a fortnight if the operation went to plan – he still called up another Irish wing, Simon Zebo of Munster, as cover.
Zebo, scorer of the most memorable of this year's Six Nations tries, was flying to Australia from Texas following his national team's narrow weekend victory over the United States. As he is most unlikely to challenge for an immediate Test place in the timeframe available, it is Maitland who finds himself fighting Alex Cuthbert of Wales for the prized No 14 shirt. With Cuthbert alongside him in tomorrow's line-up, we have quite an audition on our hands.
Evans, meanwhile, must make amends for the eerily quiet performance he turned in against Western Force in Perth last week. The second-row selection will be one of the tightest calls of all, especially as Geoff Parling and Richie Gray made a decent fist of their partnership against the Reds. With Gray alongside him tomorrow, Evans has all the motivation he needs to pull his finger out.
Gatland insisted yesterday that there was no "dirt tracker" element to his latest team selection, pointing to the presence of George North, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts in the back line, all three of whom are warm favourites for a start against the Wallabies. "Dirt trackers? Not at all," the coach said. "We're asking some of those who played on Saturday to back up in this one, and we'll probably ask some to do the same in respect of this weekend's game. It's time to start formulating a combination for the first Test, but there are lots of things we still need to look at before reaching conclusions."
If the loss of Bowe is painful for the tourists, any bad news surrounding Sexton will really give them the heebie-jeebies. The Irish outside-half twanged a hamstring during his appearance off the bench against the Reds and while he was able to play on, and while subsequent checks revealed no tearing of the muscle, it was enough to alarm the back-room staff. Gatland said yesterday that Sexton would have to play in another provincial game to confirm his readiness for Test duty.
Sexton may be wrapped in cotton wool for the time being, but Alex Corbisiero is in full body armour, despite his late arrival in Australia. The highly regarded England prop was summoned from the red-rose tour of Argentina as replacement for the stricken Cian Healy and did not have the most straightforward of trips: it took him five flights to reach Queensland from the foothills of the Andes, and he lost count of the different time zones en route. All the same, he plays tomorrow. Welcome to the world of the Lions.
"I was in Salta preparing for a Test against the Pumas," he said. "Stuart [Lancaster, the England head coach] wanted to speak to me, so we met by the hotel pool. He told me there'd been an injury during the Lions game in Perth and that I'd be making my way out there. I thought, 'This is a bit surreal', but within 24 hours I was in the air. The journey wasn't easy, but I'd have taken 10 flights to get here. I'm just so grateful for the opportunity."
Meanwhile, Gatland was keen to close the book on the "Wallaby spy" story he initiated after Saturday's game. A few hours after casually mentioning that Australians with cameras had been spotted filming the Lions at work – one man, the coach said, had been chased off the training field – he insisted that he was entirely relaxed about security matters. "I don't get paranoid about these things," he remarked, "and we're not making allegations of spying."
It was not quite the end of the tale, however. When someone pointed out to him that the Lions could not indulge in any secret filming of their own because the Wallabies were tucked away in camp somewhere to the north of Brisbane, his response was instant. "Can't we?" he asked, with that mischievous grin of his. Make of it what you will.
Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, confirmed yesterday that Quade Cooper would not be involved in the opening Test with the Lions in 12 days' time. Cooper, who led the Queensland Reds against the tourists, has been out of favour since criticising the national set-up last year, branding it as "toxic".
Asked whether the outside-half had pressed a claim for a recall with his performance at the weekend, Deans replied: "Quade is a huge talent and we understand what he's capable of, but his game probably just reaffirmed where we're at."
Lions or lambs: The players who helped or hurt their chances of Test selection
Ben Youngs: Short-side snipes, precise box-kicks, the odd half-break ... an "all mod cons" showing.
Mako Vunipola: The coaches say he is "not the finished article". God help the opposition when he is.
Dan Lydiate: The Welsh flanker was quiet in Hong Kong but far noisier this time. He has a tackling game to die for.
Stuart Hogg: Good in parts, fragile in others. The Scot has yet to mount a serious challenge to Leigh Halfpenny.
Alex Cuthbert: The prime finisher failed to finish when Tommy Bowe unlocked the Reds' defence in the first half.
Toby Faletau: The usual off-the-scale work rate failed to disguise the occasional wrong option from the 22-year-old.
Lions schedule: remaining games
Tuesday: NSW-Queensland Country (Newcastle)
Saturday: NSW Waratahs (Sydney)
18 June: Brumbies (Canberra)
22 June: First Test v Australia (Brisbane)
25 June: Melbourne Rebels (Melbourne)
29 June: Second Test (Melbourne)
6 July: Third Test (Sydney)
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