Around two hours after naming his British and Irish Lions squad, Warren Gatland was already casting doubt over the 41 men he has selected to take on the All Blacks, with the sad but true belief being that it will not be the same squad that boards the plane to New Zealand at the end of next month.
That’s because the Lions already have two injury concerns on their hands in Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, while there are still two rounds of the Premiership and Pro12 left plus the semi-finals and final, as well as this weekend’s European semi-finals and next month’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals.
That’s a lot of rugby, and the chances are that at least one of the 41 bound for New Zealand will be forced to withdraw. The last five Lions tours have seen an average of more than seven players called up during the tour as replacements, but right now Gatland and his coaching team already has concerns to deal with.
Murray has not played since he was forced off in Ireland’s defeat by Wales in the Six Nations on 10 February. A planned comeback for Munster on Saturday, in their Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens, has been shelved after he suffered a setback in his recovery from nerve damage, and Gatland’s message was clear on Wednesday: fail to play before the Lions depart and you’ll be replaced.
“It is a concern,” Gatland said. “He’s going to need to play before he gets on the plane. That’s going to be important for us. I would be reluctant to take someone to New Zealand with a neck injury who hasn’t played particularly. His last game was against Wales, on March 10th I think.
“He’s incredibly fit as a player. It’s causing him a bit of discomfort and a bit of weakness in his arm, and hopefully he’s going to be right in a couple of weeks, and the neurologist is confident he’s going to be ok. He’s had some disc problems in the past but that’s not what’s causing the issue. It’s some nerve problem that he’s got at the moment.”
If Murray is giving Gatland a headache given he is the expected first-choice scrum-half, then the injury to Wales lock Jones will be keeping him up all night. Jones captained the Lions to victory in the 2013 series-clinching third Test over Australia in Sam Warburton’s absence, and the second-row is likely to have another important role to play this time around.
But he has not played since the Six Nations finished, having suffered a shoulder injury, and there have been suggestions that the injury is slightly worse than first feared. Again, Gatland’s message was clear.
“He’s making really good progress and again they’re confident he’s going to be right,” he said. “It’s not like a hamstring or a muscle strain, where you know there’s a time frame and players can recover from it. He’s got a little bit of a shoulder issue. He’s lifting some heavy weights in training but again you’d like to see him having a run under his belt for the Ospreys before the tour as well to make sure that we could be confident with some tough contact sessions, that we know that shoulder issue is going to be right.
Gatland added: “But the prognosis with him is a lot more positive than was first diagnosed in terms of it’s an unusual injury with a capsule thing, or something, but the prognosis and the recovery is hopefully a lot better than was potentially at first suspected.”
Jones could well have a similar role to play, with captain Warburton another heading into the tour currently on the sidelines with a knee injury that should clear up in time to return before the end of the domestic season, but Gatland admitted that the thought of appointing either a vice-captain or a leadership group has not crossed his mind.
“We haven’t got a vice-captain, you should have asked me that a few weeks ago, we might have selected one,” Gatland revealed. “It’s probably hard to do that, because the ideal scenario is that the captain and the vice-captain are playing together so there’s no doubt we’re going to need other players to fill the role in terms of captaining the team, Sam’s going to need a lot of support and leadership from players.”
As is the way with team selections – particularly with a team as important as the Lions – those who haven’t made the cut are as much of the story as those who are. The likes of England captain Dylan Hartley, Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip and Scotland brother Jonny and Richie Gray have all missed on the squad, though may still find themselves with a job to do if called upon as an injury replacement.
But Gatland, nor any of his other coaches, have spoken to those players yet to remind them to stay fit, poised and ready to dash to the other side of the world if needed. Four years ago, England saw Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and Christian Wade leave the tour of Argentina for Australia, and with Eddie Jones taking his side to South America once again in Lions year, Gatland will know he can call on them if necessary.
Hartley becomes the third consecutive England captain to miss out on Lions selection, following Steve Borthwick in 2009 and Chris Robshaw four years ago. But even though Hartley missed out in the final selection meeting on Tuesday afternoon to Jamie George, Rory Best and Ken Owens, that doesn’t mean he’s the next man in line if an injury rules one of those three out.
“We haven’t even had that discussion,” Gatland said of Hartley’s faint chances. “Possibly yes. Until that happens, it’s hard for me to project that and give you a definitive answer. He’s definitely one of the players who’s been unlucky; it’s probably not the best thing to be an England captain in a Lions year. You’ve got to feel for him – he missed out in 2013 having been selected and he’s unlucky to have missed out this time.”
Gatland’s point is a simple one. Having named an enlarged 41-man squad to cope with the chances of injuries and the rigorous schedule, he knows this isn’t the last time he will be talking about injuries during the next three months.