England centre Manu Tuilagi has recovered from a shoulder injury and will start for the British and Irish Lions against the Melbourne Rebels tomorrow.
The team will be led by England lock Geoff Parling, whose wife gave birth to a baby daughter last week and who links up in the second row with Scotland’s Richie Gray in a strong pack named by coach Warren Gatland yesterday. Three other Scots are involved, with Sean Maitland starting after staying on the bench in Saturday’s 23-21 win over Australia in the first Test, Ryan Grant also involved from the start and Stuart Hogg on the bench. Although it is clearly a second string, or dirt-tracker, team, Gatland said a good performance would put players in contention for the second Test, where the Lions will be looking to wrap up the series against the Wallabies.
“I think it’s important for the players to get an opportunity on Tuesday,” he said. “We’ve kept saying all along that there’s still a chance for performances to really catch the eye and Tuesday night is another chance to impress.
“We were disappointed with the Brumbies result. I think it was a gentle reminder of certain things we needed to remember for the Test match. So, for certain guys taking the field on Tuesday, it would be nice to continue with that momentum for the second Test.”
Several players saw their Test places go up in smoke when the Lions lost to an ACT Brumbies side in Canberra last Tuesday and get a chance to make amends.
There is also a strong contingent of players who were on the bench against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium Park, including loose forward Dan Lydiate and Maitland.
Owen Farrell starts at stand-off in a half-back partnership with Irishman Conor Murray, while hooker Rory Best, who captained the Lions against the Brumbies, is among the replacements. Sean O’Brien gets a chance to impress at openside flanker with Lydiate coming in at blindside and Justin Tipuric, a favourite of many for a Test start at the beginning of the tour, on the bench.
Tuilagi suffered a shoulder injury against the Queensland Reds two weeks ago and has not played since but will link up with Brad Barritt in midfield for the match against Australia’s youngest Super Rugby team.
Winger Tommy Bowe, who played a major role in the 2009 series in South Africa, has made a rapid recovery after fracturing a bone in his hand against the Reds but was not included in the team to ensure he is fit for Saturday.
There was also good news about another centre, Welsh battering ram Jamie Roberts, who sustained a hamstring strain in last weekend’s match against the New South Wales Waratahs. “They’ve done a fantastic job getting those guys back and fit and we don’t think Jamie Roberts is too far away as well. He was up and running last week and he’s potentially in contention for that second Test,” Gatland said.
“So to have Tommy fit and back and to have Manu fit and back as well it’s a great contribution from the medical team and the fitness staff.
“The squad is looking healthy, we’ve got nearly everyone available, which is great, and if you look at the Australians, they took a bit of a battering last night. So we’re in a good place now and looking forward to Tuesday.”
Former Wales loose forward Gareth Delve will go head-to-head with three of his compatriots when he skippers the Melbourne Rebels team.
Rebels coach Damien Hill named his strongest possible team, with recent Wallaby scrum-half signing Luke Burgess making his first start for the Rebels in the last midweek clash of the Lions tour.
“Every Rugby player’s dream is to have the opportunity to play the British and Irish Lions in their home country, and I am very honoured to have been selected to start for the Rebels and get a chance to play them,” said Burgess, who joined after a spell with Toulouse in France. “European Rugby is a lot different to what we have Down Under and I think I can bring an edge to the Rebels’ attack, and control the tempo of the game.
“It’s important we establish this early, as we have seen what they can do when allowed to control the match.”
Although Wallaby trio Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Nick Phipps are unavailable due to being in the international squad, and standout loose forward Scott Higginbotham is missing through injury, the Rebels can call on a host of tried and tested Super Rugby performers.
Lachlan Mitchell, Tom English and Jason Woodward are named in an exciting back three that will run at the opposition given any opportunity, while the experienced front row of Nic Henderson, Ged Robinson and Laurie Weeks will be out to stifle the powerful Lions scrum.
Delve, who won the last of his 11 caps for Wales before moving to the Rebels for their debut season in 2010, is joined in the loose forwards by the impressive New Zealander Scott Fuglistaller and blindside Jarrod Saffy, who should make the breakdown competitive.
Rookie Bryce Hegarty, who has steered the side to Super Rugby wins over the Stormers and Waratahs, is named at stand-off after recovering from illness and is one of a number of young, talented players Hill praised ahead of the clash.
“We have been without a number of our high-profile players this season but the squad has met these challenges head on with many of the younger members getting their first taste of Super Rugby,” he said.
“Their efforts have contributed to a number of excellent team performances this season and they are excited about the challenge they will face together on Tuesday night.”
The Rebels have won four of their 15 matches in this year’s Super Rugby campaign to sit fourth out of the five teams in the Australian conference.