Lions need to increase squad size for tours – Gatland

British and Irish Lions' Head coach Warren Gatland during the training session at North Sydney Oval, Sydney in AustraliaBritish and Irish Lions' Head coach Warren Gatland during the training session at North Sydney Oval, Sydney in Australia
British and Irish Lions' Head coach Warren Gatland during the training session at North Sydney Oval, Sydney in Australia
COACH 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 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 currently on his way from Argentina to provide midfield cover.

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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 a week tomorrow.

“I think that as you move from one tour to the next, you realise how tough it is, especially for the players,” said Gatland.

“The game’s physicality has increased from 2009 (Lions tour) 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.”

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Gatland revealed that injuries could play a part when it comes to selection for next week’s first Test 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.

“I think 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,” added Gatland, without naming specific players.

“That is potentially what might happen. 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.

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“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.

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“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 fellow Welsh open-side Justin Tipuric showing 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.

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“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.”

Mako Vunipola is also looking set to complete a remarkable eight-month rise from international rookie to Lions Test prop next week.

The Saracens forward is tomorrow part of what could be Gatland’s pack for a first Test showdown.

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The forward unit – Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Croft, Warburton and Jamie Heaslip – has a distinct Test-match feel about it.

And no-one could accuse 22-year-old Vunipola of not taking his opportunity.

He has proved a pillar of strength for Gatland on tour, especially with Vunipola’s fellow loose-heads Healy and Jenkins back home after being sidelined due to injuries.

Vunipola only made his England debut last November, yet consistency and maturity have highlighted the New Zealand-born prop’s performances Down Under, building impressively towards a likely Lions Test debut in Brisbane.

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“Every chance you get to pull on the red Lions jersey is a chance to play for the Test side. This game on Saturday is no different, you just go out there and play the same game,” he said.

“I have been pleased to get three games in a row. I’ve had more chances than most players.

“The coaches seem happy with what I am doing so far, but obviously, there is still room to improve and I need a good performance on Saturday.

“Every player wants to be in the Tests. I knew with Gethin and Cian here, two solid Test props, that I had my work cut out. I knew I would have to work hard to push for the Test team.

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“Working with Graham Rowntree (Lions and England forwards coach) has been helpful here – he has been a mentor for me since I was 18 – and being out here also with class players you can’t help but learn off them.”

Vunipola would appear to be a clear leader in terms of the loose-head pecking order but is taking nothing for granted.

“The coaches wouldn’t have brought the others in if they didn’t think they were good enough to play in the Test series,” Vunipola added. ]

“I’ve just got to keep working hard.”

Gatland has put an emphasis on rest and recovery for players like Brian O’Driscoll and George North.

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O’Driscoll’s fellow centre Tuilagi also sits out the Waratahs appointment, although Kearney is set for his first tour appearance off the bench after recovering from hamstring trouble.

Twelvetrees will arrive in Australia from England’s Argentina tour as back-line cover today, with another recent arrival – Ireland wing Zebo – wearing the No 11 shirt this weekend.

Lions team to play Waratahs

British and Irish Lions team to play New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney tomorrow:

L Halfpenny; S Maitland, J Davies, J Roberts, S Zebo; J Sexton, M Phillips; M Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, A-W Jones, P O’Connell, T Croft, S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip.

Replacements: R Hibbard, A Corbisiero, D Cole, G Parling, D Lydiate, B Youngs, O Farrell, R Kearney.