NSW Waratahs 17 British & Irish Lions 47: Backs to the wall with North a big doubt for Lions Test opener

British and Irish Lions' Tom Youngs takes on Waratahs Drew MitchellBritish and Irish Lions' Tom Youngs takes on Waratahs Drew Mitchell
British and Irish Lions' Tom Youngs takes on Waratahs Drew Mitchell
Wales wing George North is currently rated as “less than 50-50” to be fit for Saturday’s first Test match against Australia in Brisbane.

It would be a major blow for the British and Irish Lions were North – arguably the tourists’ most lethal attacker on tour so far – to be ruled out of facing the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium.

With centre Jamie Roberts suffering a suspected hamstring injury during Saturday’s demolition of the New South Wales Waratahs, Lions head coach Warren Gatland could be forced into some significant back division rethinking.

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Jonathan Davies’s brilliant performance against the Waratahs suggests he is ready to team up with Brian O’Driscoll as the Lions’ first Test midfield combination, if required, with Simon Zebo a probable alternative to North.

“His hamstring is still tight, he is still being treated,” said Gatland in assessing North’s position.

“We have to make the call on Wednesday. He has not trained. To be honest, he is less than 50-50.

“Fingers crossed with Jamie. He has never pulled a hamstring before – he is not 100 per cent sure whether that is the injury.

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“The forwards seem to be holding themselves together, and unfortunately the backs are the ones who are taking all the knocks. It is something I haven’t really experienced in the past.

“When you look at probably the most attritional position out of all them, the loose-forwards, and they are all up fit and running and ready to go. It is just one of those things that happen.

“When we look back on it, we might think that 16 backs (in the original tour squad) wasn’t enough. I’ve already said that I have noticed a physical step-up from four years ago.

“I think we have been a little bit unlucky. Not so much that they are major injuries, just the bumps and bruises the players are getting that are holding them back.”

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Tour newcomers Christian Wade, Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and 36-year-old Shane Williams will all start against the Brumbies in Canberra tomorrow, when the Lions’ unbeaten tour record could come under serious threat.

Williams, Wales’ record try-scorer, is currently playing in Japan after retiring from international rugby. The shock call-up sees him feature in a team that will be captained by Ireland hooker Rory Best.

Gatland, though, has maintained his positive outlook on injuries, adding: “I don’t think it will change the way we are going to play.

“The fact you pick up injuries, that’s part of the game and it is a great opportunity for other players to come in and put their hand up.

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“We might have picked up one or two injuries, but some people are making the most of their opportunities. A couple of players really stepped up yesterday – Alun-Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies, in particular.

“I think we’ve got a strong squad, and if we do pick up one or two injuries there are a lot capable of coming in and doing a job for us.”

Gatland, meanwhile, delivered an upbeat injury assessment on Ireland wing Tommy Bowe, who broke his hand playing against Queensland Reds eight days ago and underwent surgery.

“He is out of the cast. It is healing well,” said Gatland.

“At an outside chance he could be available for (next) Saturday, but what they (medics) are saying is it is more likely he will be back training and available for the second Test.”

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The Brumbies, under the astute direction of former South Africa coach Jake White, have long been viewed as a team outside of Test match action most likely to take the Lions’ scalp Down Under.

Gatland will not be deflected from the sole purpose of his Australian mission – to win the Test series. “I’ve said all along if we dropped a game or two on the way, I was prepared to sacrifice that to win the Test series,” he added. “No-one is going to remember if we win all the other matches and lose the Test series. It’s all about winning the Test series.

“You have got to be prepared to make a couple of tough calls, and if it means dropping a game or two on the way because of that, we are prepared to do that.

“If we don’t turn up on Saturday with the best possible chance and everyone fit and fresh, I don’t think it is fair on the rest of the squad, the players and the jersey.

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“They (Brumbies) have been playing well. They are quite similar to a South African side the way they play. They are very direct and come hard off the line defensively, and they will be primed. The more we continue to win, the bigger that Lions scalp becomes.”

The Lions’ determination to make it six wins from six, though, was mirrored by England centre Twelvetrees.

“To be here with the Lions is a pretty exciting thing. I can’t wait to get the shirt on,” he said.

“You have got to believe in your own ability, which is where it has got me this year, making my debut for England and now being here. The sky’s the limit, and you make it what you want.

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“I have been given the opportunity, and I just want to take it with both hands. I want to be there contributing to the side, otherwise there is no point in being there.”

Waratahs: D Mitchell; C Crawford, R Horne, T Carter, P Betham; B Foley, B McKibbin; J Tilse, J Ulugia, P Ryan, W Skelton, O Atkins, J Holloway, P McCutcheon, D Dennis (capt). Replacements: L Holmes, R Aho, S Talakai, L Timani, A J Gilbert, M Lucas, B Volavola, T Kingston.

Lions: L Halfpenny (Wal); S Maitland (Scot), J Davies (Wal), J Roberts (Wales), S Zebo (Ire); J Sexton (Ire), M Phillips (Wal); M Vunipola (Eng), T Youngs (Eng), A Jones (Wal), A-W Jones (Wal), P O’Connell (Ire), T Croft (Eng), S Warburton (Wal, capt), J Heaslip (Ire). Replacements: R Hibbard (Wal), A Corbisiero (Eng), D Cole (Eng), G Parling (Eng), D Lydiate (Wal), B Youngs (Eng), O Farrell (Eng), R Kearney (Ire).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

Lions team to play ACT Brumbies tomorrow: R Kearney; C Wade, B Barritt, B Twelvetrees, S Williams; S Hogg, B Youngs; R Grant, R Best (capt), M Stevens, I Evans, R Gray, S O’Brien, J Tipuric, T Faletau. Replacements: R Hibbard, A Corbisiero, D Cole, G Parling, D Lydiate, C Murray, O Farrell, S Zebo.