BRITISH and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland believes those members of his squad who still have club commitments could be disadvantaged at the start of the tour Down Under but has told them not to hold back when appearing for their respective sides.
No less than 14 of the 37-man Lions squad could be in action at club level in the coming weeks, with Leicester, Northampton, Ulster and Leinster all in the hunt for trophies. Despite the possibility of losing important players for the tour, Gatland wants those involved in upcoming club fixtures to give their all. “There is a bit of trepidation about not picking up injuries,” Gatland said. “But, if you go in with that attitude and try and look after yourself there is more chance of picking up an injury, so the advice to those players is to go hell for leather. It’s tough for the players in terms of they know a few days after a big game they are on the plane.”
One player who has already picked up an injury is 2005 Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll. The Ireland centre did not meet up with the rest of the squad in London today after suffering a back problem during Leinster’s win over Glasgow at the weekend. Gatland played down the injury and said it was something the staff have been aware of and it can be easily managed. “The information has just been to keep him off his feet for 48 hours and it is something that he has had that tends to come once a year at some point, it is normally just the case of an epidural at some stage,” Gatland said. “We have known in the past he has had problems with his back and that it has gone into spasms during a game. It normally takes just a few days to relieve the pain. We will keep our fingers crossed he is able to play in the two Leinster games that are coming up.”
With the exception of O’Driscoll, Gatland confirmed he has no other injury concerns, even if most of his squad could be a little battle-hardened. “Nothing at this stage,” he said when asked about other injuries within the squad. “All of the players are in for medicals today. Normally at this time of the year every player is carrying something so most of them could probably be ruled out for one reason or another. We are lucky at this stage that we haven’t had anyone ruled out with anything major.”
The Lions tour kicks off with a clash with the Barbarians in Hong Kong, a match that will not feature any of those players in action at home. With Gatland wanting to see the best of those staying behind, it could be considered their build-up to the first Test against Australia in Brisbane is better than those travelling to Hong Kong but the New Zealander reckons the squad will benefit from as much time together as possible. “Ironically, those players not in the finals will be in a better position in terms of preparation for the tour,” he said. “It does put the other guys at a bit of a disadvantage because of their lack of preparation time. The first three and a half weeks will be about preparation for the first Test. The team that plays the Barbarians should be in reasonable shape in terms of their preparations in the next couple of weeks.”
Other than the omission of England captain Chris Robshaw and Jonny Wilkinson’s decision not to be a member of the touring party, the decision from Gatland to name just two fly-halves has been one of the major talking points since the squad announcement. But Gatland is sticking by his guns and believes the ability to debate and argue the toss about the make-up of the squad is something that gives a Lions tour an added interest. “It [not picking a third fly-half] is always a question to debate and that will be answered afterwards,” he said. “We have gone with what we think is the right decision and people are going to have other opinions – that is what is great about the squad.”