O'Kelly the first casualty before battle is joined

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The Independent Online

James Robson, medic-in-chief to the British and Irish Lions and an acknowledged master of the art of helping finely tuned athletes survive the worst physical excesses of modern-day rugby, predicted some eight months ago that players would be "invalided out" of this tour of New Zealand, possibly in unprecedented numbers. The first of these, the experienced Irish lock Malcolm O'Kelly, duly bit the dust yesterday, before the visitors had fired a single shot in anger.

James Robson, medic-in-chief to the British and Irish Lions and an acknowledged master of the art of helping finely tuned athletes survive the worst physical excesses of modern-day rugby, predicted some eight months ago that players would be "invalided out" of this tour of New Zealand, possibly in unprecedented numbers. The first of these, the experienced Irish lock Malcolm O'Kelly, duly bit the dust yesterday, before the visitors had fired a single shot in anger.

O'Kelly will fly home over the next couple of days after aggravating a long-standing and complex lower abdominal condition, and it is possible that he will pass his replacement, Simon Shaw of Wasps and England, coming the other way. Nobody with half a heart would begrudge Shaw his opportunity, for he has long been counted among the most effective second-row forwards in the European game and might have had 50 caps by now had he not been a serial recipient of rank bad luck.

By the same yardstick, it is impossible not to feel for O'Kelly, who, on his day, closely resembles a world-beater. "I have to be philosophical and accept the judgement of the doctors," he said, 48 hours before the Lions' opening tour match with Bay of Plenty in Rotorua, a game for which he had initially been selected on the bench. "It is as well just to go home and let the coaches and players get on with the job of trying to win the series against New Zealand. They are a great bunch and though I am sorry I will no longer be part of it all, I wish them the very best."

Leinster's strapping line-out specialist injured himself during a pre-departure training run in Wales; indeed, he and the Lions' other major fitness issue, the Scottish loose forward Simon Taylor, crocked themselves within five minutes of each other. Until Tuesday afternoon, most of the concern had centred on Taylor's hamstring. But O'Kelly then found himself struggling during a fierce session at the Takapuna club, and after a specialist consultation yesterday he was given the dread news.

Shaw, who won a World Cup winners' medal in 2003 without setting foot on the pitch after joining the England squad as a replacement, received his summons while preparing for Martin Johnson's testimonial match at Twickenham this weekend. He is no stranger to the Lions environment, having toured South Africa under Johnson in 1997. Indeed, it was on that trip that his misfortunes, restricted until then to those of the injury variety, really kicked in. Changes to the line-out laws permitted jumpers to be lifted by their colleagues, and as Shaw weighed around 20st at the time, his effectiveness was somewhat reduced. Despite playing brilliantly at virtually every turn, he was passed over for the Tests against the Springboks.

"I am absolutely delighted, but I feel for Mal and wish him well in his recovery," said the 32-year-old, who arrives tomorrow. "It is a great honour to be involved with the Lions. It is just sinking in, to be honest, but it will be fantastic to get out there. I am looking forward to the challenge we face in New Zealand."

Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach, has been stating at every opportunity that this is the fittest, most comprehensively prepared Lions squad ever to leave the British Isles, and he is probably right. Certainly, Robson considers the bulk of the party to be in optimum condition, despite having already treated all but five of the 43 players currently present. But O'Kelly's early departure and the lingering concerns over Taylor, allied to Iain Balshaw's failure to pass muster before reaching Heathrow, suggests the fall-out will be considerable.

"The first Lions tour of the professional era, in 1997, was the most demanding I had ever experienced," Robson said in an interview in these pages last October. "The last one, in 2001, was another notch up. I have no doubt that for pure intensity, this trip will be out of sight by comparison. I invalided six or seven players out of those two previous tours, and I am quite sure people will be invalided out of this one, too. This is a personal view, but I expect, and am steeling myself for, some injuries of considerable magnitude."

Bay of Plenty officials have confirmed a 30,000 sell-out for tomorrow's game, which could easily be a fiery affair given the local team's reputation for overt physicality. Today, the Lions coaches will cast a keen eye over the All Black trial in Napier, even though players from the newly crowned Super 12 champions Canterbury Crusaders have been held back, as have those Test contenders involved in the Maori match with Fiji in Suva.

Tana Umaga, the All Black captain, has pulled out of the "probables" side after going down with a flu-type virus, but a number of good bets for the opening Test in Christchurch three weeks tomorrow will be involved, including the Waikato scrum-half Byron Kelleher, who is favoured to oust Justin Marshall from the starting combination.

* Mark Taylor will captain Wales against the United States when he earns his 50th cap at Rentschler Field in Hartford tomorrow. The 32-year-old Sale centre will lead a side including one debutant, the Llanelli Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees, who plays in place of the injured Mefin Davies.

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