WARREN Gatland believes that future British and Irish Lions squads may need to be bigger in number because of rugby’s increased physical nature and injury attrition rate.
Gatland selected a 37-man party for the current Australia tour, but props Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins have already gone home injured, wing Tommy Bowe is recovering from a broken hand and full-back Rob Kearney is involved for the first time this weekend after being sidelined by hamstring trouble.
Three players – Alex Corbisiero, Ryan Grant and Simon Zebo – have flown in to join the squad, while England centre Billy Twelvetrees is on his way from Argentina to provide midfield cover.
Tomorrow’s appointment with New South Wales Waratahs sees the tour reach only its halfway point, and the first of three Tests against Australia is still nine days away.
“As you move from one tour to the next, you realise how tough it is, especially for the players,” Gatland said.
“The game’s physicality has increased from [the Lions tour in] 2009 in South Africa. It has stepped up a level, and players handling two games in a week is tough. It is something we need to be mindful of.
“If you are writing a report at the end of the tour, you need to consider whether there is a case for bigger squads from the start because of this step-up in physicality.”
Gatland revealed that injuries could play a part when it comes to selection for next week’s first Test against Australia in Brisbane, and the Lions still have two games left before then.
Wing George North and centres Brian O’Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi are among those not involved against the Waratahs. “There are one or two that are a little bit sore that may next week be out of contention because they won’t have been fit enough early enough in the [Test] week,” Gatland added, without naming specific players.
“By the time Saturday [the first Test] comes round, they might all be fit, but one or two are possibly going to be ruled out because they are not fit enough earlier in the week. Manu has a sore shoulder, but it is improving all the time and he is training. George North’s hamstring is a bit tight from the other night.
“We’ve got a few bodies among the backs who have been knocked around, which is why Billy Twelvetrees has been brought in as cover.
“Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell have both been passed fit by the medical staff. We could easily have gone again with Stuart Hogg at 10 [this weekend], but Jonny is playing.”
One area where the Lions are completely clear of injuries is the back-row, which promises to provide Gatland and his coaching staff with their longest Test selection debate next week.
“There is strong competition there, which is what you want,” he said. “Everyone is firing, and if you look at the talent we have there – Sean O’Brien’s carrying from six, and we know he can play seven; what talent and ability Tom Croft brings to the back-row, for example; the defence and depth Dan Lydiate brings. The two No 8s [Jamie Heaslip and Toby Faletau] bring different skills to the table.
“It’s going to be a long night making that selection decision.”
Tour captain Sam Warburton is also firmly in the back-row selection debate, especially with his fellow Welsh openside Justin Tipuric showing such impressive form, and Gatland added: “I have been 100 per cent consistent about what I’ve said from day one – it is about picking the best players.
“Sam is well aware of that. He had a good start against the Reds last week, and this is another big game for him on Saturday. But let’s allow the game to unfold, rather than trying to predict and create some controversy about leaving one of two players out of the team.”
Meanwhile, Stuart Lancaster has revealed that he led Twelvetrees to think he had been dropped by England – before hitting him with the good news about his British and Irish Lions call-up.
Lancaster played the prank when he pulled Twelvetrees out of breakfast to let him know he had been summoned to join the injury-hit Lions in Australia.
Twelvetrees thought he was in trouble when Lancaster tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he had seen his text message, before taking him into a private room. The Gloucester centre had been due to start for England in their second Test against Argentina.
Lancaster said: “I pulled him out and said ‘Can I have a word about Saturday? You’re not going to play’.
“He went ‘What have I done?’ I said ‘You’re off to Australia!’ It was a bit of a wind-up but a nice wind-up. I am delighted for him. His form in the first Test was excellent. His confidence is high and he is more than capable of going there and playing well.”
v NSW Waratahs at Allianz Stadium, tomorrow, 10.30am BST
15 L Halfpenny (Wales)
14 S Maitland (Scotland)
13 J Davies (Wales)
12 J Roberts (Wales)
11 S Zebo (Ireland)
10 J Sexton (Ireland)
9 M Phillips (Wales)
1 M Vunipola (England)
2 T Youngs (England)
3 A Jones (Wales)
4 A Wyn Jones (Wales)
5 P O’Connell (Ireland)
6 T Croft (England)
7 S Warburton (Wales) (c)
8 J Heaslip (Ireland)
R Hibbard (Wal), A Corbisiero (Eng), D Cole (Eng), G Parling (Eng), D Lydiate (Wal), B Youngs (Eng), O Farrell (Eng), R Kearney (Ire).