Graham Henry may be fond of unilluminating one-word responses to perfectly legitimate questions, but the Lions coach bordered on the confessional as he surveyed the wreckage of his squad in advance of tomorrow night's awkward rumble with a Queensland President's XV featuring a raft of Super 12 players. "The medical team tell me that, on average, six people leave a Lions tour with injuries," Henry said. "We're keen to reduce that average, but we haven't made too good a start."
The Scottish loose forward Simon Taylor, all of 40 minutes old in Lions terms, became an ex-tourist after suffering medial and cruciate ligament damage to his left knee during the record three-figure victory over Western Australia in Perth. Meanwhile, the England hooker Phil Greening is on crutches, Iain Balshaw is nursing a bruised sternum, Lawrence Dallaglio is showing little sign of pulling on a pair of boots in anger and Mike Catt's calf injury is of concern. Thank heavens, then, for David Young, the venerable Cardiff prop, and his powers of recovery.
Young, the first player to make the Lions cut in three different decades, will captain the midweek side against the President's XV. If he is some distance behind England's Phil Vickery in the race for a Test berth in Brisbane in 19 days' time, the formidably constructed Welshman cuts a reassuring figure at this fragile stage of the 10-match trip. Virtually half his side Scott Murray, Colin Charvis, Martyn Williams, Martin Corry and the entire back three of Matt Perry, Dafydd James and Jason Robinson are virgin Lions, and two others, Rob Henderson and Robbie McBryde, have only 29 minutes of red-shirted activity between them. In an underbaked side, Young's will be a significant steadying influence.
This time last week, it was perfectly conceivable that he would not appear this early. A calf strain sidelined him throughout the Lions' male bonding week in Hampshire, and it was not until the party arrived in Fremantle that the former rugby league professional was able to take a meaningful part in proceedings. Yesterday, his sense of relief was palpable. "I know Australia quite well; I turned out for the Northern Suburbs club in Canberra back in 1987 and I played the three Lions Tests against the Wallabies here in '89," he recalled. "That last experience taught me what it meant to be a Lion. It was a big enough honour simply to make this party. To captain the side has to be the highlight of my career."
Henry's selection was predictable, given the line-up in Perth last Friday and the extent of the casualty list. However, this is the last free ride for his players. With Queensland awaiting the tourists in Brisbane on Saturday and the opening Test less than three weeks distant, every position will have to be earned from here on in. Tomorrow's game will, therefore, mean an awful lot to genuine Test contenders like Murray, Tom Smith, Jeremy Davidson, Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood, the only player selected for each of the opening contests. Greenwood is likely to play at outside centre tomorrow and it is fair to say that he is piling the pressure on Catt and Brian O'Driscoll, the pre-tour favourites for the midfield positions.
At least the coach now has a bedrock of hard information on which to plan his campaign. The Wallabies' 41-29 victory over the New Zealand Maori at the weekend may not have been entirely convincing, but by putting five tries past a side that had not tasted defeat since 1994 they must have done something right. "The Maori are one of the most competitive sides playing the game and I thought the Wallabies might have been knocked over," Henry said, glumly.
To add to his problems, the Wallaby coaching staff named a 24-man Australia A squad of serious quality for the match with the Lions in Gosford tomorrow week: 11 full caps, eight members of the Test squad and two sevens players in Richard Graham and Julian Huxley. Graham is the only Queenslander in the squad, which suggests that his state side will be at full strength against the Lions at Ballymore this Saturday.
LIONS TEAM (v Queensland President's XV, Townsville, tomorrow): M Perry (England); D James (Wales), W Greenwood (England), R Henderson (Ireland), J Robinson (England); N Jenkins (Wales), M Dawson (England); T Smith (Scotland), R McBryde (Wales), D Young (Wales, capt), J Davidson (Ireland), S Murray (Scotland), C Charvis (Wales), M Williams (Wales), M Corry (England). Replacements: A Healey (England), M Taylor (Wales), D Luger (England), R Hill (England), M O'Kelly (Ireland), J Leonard (England), G Bulloch (Scotland).
AUSTRALIA A SQUAD (v Lions, Gosford, 19 June): M Bartholomeusz (ACT), C Blades (NSW), G Bond (ACT), T Bowman (NSW), B Cannon (NSW), M Edmonds (NSW), R Graham (Queensland), N Grey (NSW), T Hall (ACT), R Moore (NSW), J Harrison (ACT), J Holbeck (ACT), J Huxley (NSW), L Inman (NSW), D Lyons (NSW), T Murphy (ACT), P Noriega (NSW), S Payne (NSW), P Ryan (ACT), S Staniforth (NSW), P Waugh (NSW), J West (NSW), C Whitaker (NSW), J Williams (ACT).