British and Irish Lions: Sam Warburton comes through return as Warren Gatland unleashes Test side on Maori All Blacks

Warburton looks set to start  the first Test against the All Blacks though is unlikely to start against the Maori this weekend

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The Independent Online

Sam Warburton is winning his race to fit for the first Test against the All Blacks after coming through the defeat by the Highlanders this week, with the British and Irish Lions ready to unleash their Test side on the Maori All Blacks in a bid to get their tour back on track.

The squad flew to Rotorua on Thursday licking their wounds from the 23-22 defeat in Dunedin that condemned Warren Gatland’s side to the second defeat in six days, following the loss to the Blues last week.

The rate of attrition has also increased significantly with Stuart Hogg being sent home after breaking his eye socket and damaging his cheekbone in an injury that could have left him blind if he had played on. Courtney Lawes also suffered a scary head injury in a collision with Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo, while there have been concerns over Ross Moriarty, Jonathan Davies and Warburton.

But the captain came through 68 minutes at the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Tuesday night, and assistant coach Neil Jenkins confirmed that the Welshman looks on course to be ready in time for the first Test against the All Blacks on 24 June.

“Certainly better from Warby [Warburton], and it was nice for him to get a run-out last night,” Jenkins said on Wednesday. “There were quite a few turnovers and carried quite a few balls.

Lions video diary day 14

“For Sam it's just about keeping getting game time if he can. I don't know what the outcome will be on the weekend, but it was a big improvement from him, and the more game time he plays the better he's going to be.

“Sam's a top-end player, a quality, world-class seven, but again it's the same as anything, you need to be playing to keep getting yourself back up to the levels that you need to. Warby would be the first to be admitting that, there's no doubting that, but he had a much, much better game last night and he'll keep improving, there's no doubt.”

Jenkins went on to confirm that this weekend’s side that is selected to take on the New Zealand Maori – the team that beat the Lions 12 years ago – will feature the majority of the Test side that start against the All Blacks next weekend, barring one or two changes.

The irony comes in that the All Blacks will also play this week in their warm-up match against Samoa, and Steve Hansen is also likely to name a strong squad in order to take full advantage of their one and only warm-up match.

“From the All Blacks’ point of view, they want a hit out before they play us on Saturday so I’d like to think they will be pretty strong,” Jenkins added.

Neil Jenkins confirmed the side on Saturday will be close to full strength (Getty)

“There might be one or two changes. The reality is that whatever side we pick on Saturday, it will be strong. It won't be far off what will be playing a week on Saturday. There are couple of players here and there, but the team will be strong.

“It's getting closer and the team have to play. It will be quite interesting on the weekend from both the All Blacks point of view and ours.”

The good news for the Lions is that both Moriarty and Davies are nearing a return, the former having not been seen since the opening match of the tour and the latter suffering a head injury in last weekend’s victory over the Crusaders.

“Both are obviously back in training, Jonathan is still going through protocols but hopefully he'll be back in full training tomorrow and we'll see from there.

“Ross has been back in training doing a little bit of running.”

Lawes meanwhile will need to go through similar protocols to Davies to ensure he has not suffered a serious concussion, which rules him out of this weekend's match at a minimum and, given he suffered a serious blow to the head, is unlikely to play in next Tuesday's match against the Chiefs.