Injuries start to take toll as Lions strive to start series with a roar

All Lions tours have their twists and turns but this one is now spiralling away into comic-book fantasy.

The 36-year-old Shane Williams has been summoned from the Talksport radio booth, Brad Barritt from downtown Hollywood and Christian Wade from Buenos Aires. Only a few days ago Billy Twelvetrees was planning a holiday to Greece and Simon Zebo was also on a different continent. The side to face the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Tuesday must be among the most left-field of team sheets on any Lions expedition in their 125-year history.

Several thoughts occur simultaneously. How many extra planes will they need to fly everyone home? Has anyone considered the poor kitman?

And, in the great scheme of things, how much do the flood of reinforcements fundamentally alter things? At first glance this is a team falling apart at the seams but when the Wallabies review the video of Saturday's contest they will reach a different conclusion. There might be more replacements than at an artificial-hip clinic, but the Lions still have enough talent to commence the forthcoming Test series with a serious bang. If a scratch side containing Uncle Tom Cobley and his extended family loses to the Brumbies, it will not make the Lions no-hopers in Brisbane on Saturday.

What has changed, however, is the size and shape of the Lions' frontline options behind the scrum. A fortnight ago the likely back-line for the first Test included Tommy Bowe, George North and Jamie Roberts, with Manu Tuilagi off the bench. Injury has intervened to such an extent the touring team will take the field in Canberra without a winger taller than 5ft 8in, while also seeking to perm two razor-sharp Test-match winners from Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland and Simon Zebo.

This is not the moment to revisit the glaring lack of cover in the original selection. To some extent Warren Gatland has a point when he argues the Lions have been unlucky. The rare attrition rate among the three-quarters has to be balanced, for a start, against a remarkably injury-free back row.

The Lions, however, need to focus on the immediate future not the past, and locate a contingency plan should North and Bowe fail to recover. Neither Cuthbert nor Maitland has yet blazed a trail across antipodean turf and Zebo, virtually straight off the plane, looked as eager, sprightly and threatening as either of them. The Wallabies, with the powerful likes of Israel Folau and Nick Cummins to choose from, will be dangerous in the air as well as quick across the ground.

If North and Bowe were around, Gatland would not be overly bothered. With Roberts injured, however, his likely Test midfield of Jonathan Davies and Brian O'Driscoll is a very different animal. Cuthbert's extra ball-carrying power will work in his favour, while Maitland has played enough big games for the Crusaders in a previous life not to be fazed by anything in a Wallabies shirt.

Gatland, either way, needs to be smart and the aerially brilliant Rob Kearney, assuming he comes through in one piece, must be a contender for the Test XV as well as the match-day squad. By the time this series is completed, the likes of Zebo, the electric Christian Wade and Twelvetrees could also be Test Lions.

What no one disputes is that Gatland's squad currently contains the best kicker in either hemisphere, if not the most valuable pound-for-pound player as well. Leigh Halfpenny's stock has never been higher. His 30-point contribution included two deliciously taken tries and his 22 successful kicks from 23 attempts on this tour is due reward for his endless hours of practice.

Alun Wyn Jones, Tom Croft and Davies were equally conspicuous, the scent of a Test spot dragging a little bit extra from each of them.

Only the Lions can do this, the honour of representing the best of four nations still as huge a motivation as ever. Croft's second-half try was reminiscent of his magnificent galloping effort for England in Paris last year, while Davies reminded everyone of the priceless value of a centre who can time and judge a pass in his sleep.

In the front row the arguments against starting with Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola are also melting away by the day. Vunipola's ball-carrying strength will come as a nasty shock to some Wallabies tacklers, while Youngs' work-rate and willingness to hurl his body into the most unpromising situations have made him a realistic alternative to the bigger Richard Hibbard.

His club understanding with Croft and Geoff Parling is also proving a bonus at the line-out, an area the Lions simply have to get right.

Yet well as Jonny Sexton played, in between dodging the attentions of several local headhunters, Australia can never, ever be underestimated. Sexton and Mike Phillips have operated as a half-back pairing for precisely 49 competitive minutes in their careers while O'Driscoll and Davies have combined for a mere 23 second-half minutes against the Combined Country.

Maitland is more familiar with his opponents' games than he is with some of his own team-mates', and Zebo and Halfpenny have scarcely met. Anyone who tells you the Lions are now automatically nailed-on to win the series having thumped a Waratahs side lacking a dozen senior players is a few prawns short of a barbie.

NSW Waratahs Mitchell; Crawford , Horne, Carter (Kingston, 47), Betham (Volavola, 76); Foley, McKibbin (Lucas, 80); Tilse (Aho, 72) Ulugia (Holmes, 72), Ryan (Talakai, 72) Skelton, Atkins, Holloway (Timani, 50), McCutcheon (Gilbert, 56), Dennis (capt).

Tries Carter 2 Cons McKibbin 2 Pen McKibbin.

Lions Halfpenny (Kearney, 59); Maitland, Davies, Roberts, Zebo; Sexton (Farrell, 49), Phillips (B Youngs, 59); Vunipola (Corbisiero, 59) T Youngs (Hibbard, 59) A Jones (Cole, 59), AW Jones, O'Connell (Parling, 59), Croft (Lydiate, 59), Warburton (capt), Heaslip.

Tries Sexton, Halfpenny 2, Croft, Davies

Cons Halfpenny 4, Farrell. Pens: Halfpenny 4

Referee J Peyper (South Africa) Att 40,805

Powered by article was written by Robert Kitson in Sydney, for The Guardian on Sunday 16th June 2013 22.02 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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