Graham Rowntree has eased fears over the fitness of British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton ahead of the third match of their tour of New Zealand after the flanker was left out of the side that will face the Crusaders on Saturday, despite revealing that he is currently unable to take part in full training.
Warburton was a notable name left off the teamsheet for this weekend’s encounter against the unbeaten Super Rugby leaders at AMI Stadium, which has taken on even greater importance since the Lions lost to the Blues on Wednesday.
The 28-year-old came into the tour having not played in nearly two months before starting the first game of the tour due to a knee injury suffered while playing for the Cardiff Blues, and head coach Warren Gatland confirmed after his team selection that he is now struggling with a sore ankle that could leave him sidelined for the next few days.
Rowntree, who is on his third Lions tour as a coach and fifth overall, was quick to play down the severity of Warburton’s injury, and after watching him train on Friday – albeit in the form of straight line running only – is confident that he will get another outing under his belt before the first Test against the All Blacks on 24 June.
“No concerns,” said Rowntree. “[We’ve] got a few bangs and bruises, that’s what you get on a rugby tour obviously but no grave concern.
“You saw him [Warburton] in game one. He hurt his ankle a bit in that game, he’s not able to train fully yet but I watched him train next to us doing some rehab running and he’s working hard, he’s just not able at the moment to do some of the twisting and off-line running that’s required in a high intensity session.
“But to the people back home, don’t worry about Sam, he’s just having a few days out of the twisting and turning but he’s working hard.”
What is a bigger concern for Rowntree, given his role in handling the scrum aspect of the forwards coach role he is sharing with Steve Borthwick, is how to conquer the Crusaders scrum. After having it pointed out that the Western Force had some success in the scrum against the Canterbury side, only to have it pointed out that this only meant they kept the ball in the pack for a long time, Rowntree admitted he’s found it hard to find any previous footage of a weakness in the Crusaders’ front-row.
“Oh, you got me all excited there,” Rowntree joked with a member of the New Zealand media. “Look, they are a very competitive outfit, very aggressive on opposition ball. I think they're top of the stats in terms of pressurising opposition ball.
“They're very clean on opposition ball as well. It's a real challenge for us. We talk about the set-pieces as physical statements as forwards coaches, winning those little battles in the war of a game.
“It could be a scrum or a maul or, on the flip side, defending those. They're big battle areas in a game and we've got to match them and better them at the weekend if we're going to stand a chance of winning. We've got so much respect for this crew.”
With the game against the Crusaders being the third of the three games Gatland designated for everyone to get at least one start on the tour to show what they can do, the Test side should start to come together from Saturday onwards. Gatland stressed that the first-choice XV has not yet been considered fully, although the game against the New Zealand Maori next week is likely to resemble something of the Test line-up given it is a week out from the first Test with the All Blacks.
“It's early days,” stressed Rowntree. “We said we'd have a look at everyone in these first few games and we'll see what happens. You want to see as many combinations as well going into that Test series and it's only just around the corner, so we're constantly looking at training, looking at games with microscopic detail to see who's got the form.
“I'd say at the moment we're a long way off that. But it'll become very clear over the next five days.”
Pushed further on if the Maori game will offer a few clues to Gatland’s first XV, Rowntree responded: “Maybe, maybe yeah. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t. I’ve seen late bolters come in for the Test series but maybe.”
But given that the Crusaders have won each of their 14 Super Rugby games this season and are likely to boast the starting All Blacks front-five – unless hooker Dane Coles and lock Brodie Retallick can recover swiftly from their concussion issues – it would be a smart move by the Lions camp to send their starting front and second rows this weekend to get a taste of what they will face in two weeks’ time.
“These are the game we want going into a Test series, playing against a top Super team, full of All Blacks,” Rowntree added. “We have had a good look at them as well. They have got a strong team, a strong matchday 23. It’s going to be a real challenge.”
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