British and Irish Lions: Warbuton place in spotlight

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SAM WARBURTON received a ringing endorsement as he prepares to lead the British and Irish Lions against New South Wales Waratahs tomorrow.

It will be only the Wales flanker’s second start on tour, with some pundits suggesting he could be under pressure for a place in next week’s first Test starting line-up.

But the back-row of Tom Croft, Warburton and Jamie Heaslip could also be the one Lions head coach Warren Gatland decides to go with against Australia in Brisbane.

“I have been very impressed with Sam,” Lions assistant coach and forwards guru Graham Rowntree said following today’s training session at North Sydney Oval.

“He is very professional. He is certainly not showing any signs of stress or pressure.

“Like all the other players, he goes about his business. I have been really impressed with him as a person.

“He is a doer, and a lot of guys are following his lead in terms of his attitude to training, his diligence.

“It is not getting any easier in terms of selection. There are a lot of guys putting their hands up.

“We will get tomorrow out of the way, and then Tuesday (against the Brumbies), and then we will pick a Test team. That is the truth.”

Rowntree added that it is hoped Scotland lock Richie Gray will be fit for the Brumbies clash, while wing George North (tight hamstring) took no part in today’s work-out, although centre Manu Tuilagi did as he continues his recovery from a shoulder injury.

“He (Gray) has got a bump on his shoulder,” Rowntree said. “He is certainly not fit for this weekend, and we are hoping he is going to be fit for Tuesday.”

The Lions lineout had its moments of malfunction during last Tuesday’s 64-0 stroll over a Combined Country XV in Newcastle, while the Waratahs are boosted tomorrow by key forward Dave Dennis being temporarily released from pre-Test series Wallabies training.

“Dave Dennis coming back in will bolster their lineout. He’s a good player, he has got some Test experience,” Rowntree said.

“We had a few issues in the lineout on Tuesday. We dropped three from 16, but a lot of that was just personnel that hadn’t played a lot together.

“That’s what you get on a tour like this. You take it on the chin and move on.

“I actually thought they battled very well as a pack. They didn’t get enough credit for the performance they put in.”

While the Lions will face their toughest match of the tour so far against Waratahs, former Lions prop Graham Price believes they might still not be battle-hardened in time for the Test series.

The tourists have so far run in 28 tries, scored 214 points and have an average scoreline of 53-9 against opposition which has contained amateurs and part-timers.

Price, who won 41 caps for Wales as a tight head prop and played a record 12 successive Tests for the Lions spanning the 1977 and 1983 tours of New Zealand and the 1980 trip to South Africa, said: “The first Lions tour I went on we had 24 matches and every single game the opposition came at us as hard as they could from start to finish. Even if we won comfortably we knew we had been in a game. It was that intense.

“At the moment we’re not getting to a level which sees the combinations come through and a pattern. Lions tours are something special and we should be playing against meaningful opposition every single match.”

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