Belfast Telegraph

British and Irish Lions tour faces testing time

By Niall Crozier

Lady Luck is not showing Warren Gatland's 2013 Lions any favours; if they are to succeed, they are going to have to do it the hard way.

But Gatland is proving admirably supportive of his squad's Irish players, bearing with injury-hit Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney whilst calling up Munster's Simon Zebo from Ireland duty in the United States should they fail to recover.

Having been forced to write off Leinster's Cian Healy – prior to suffering serious ankle ligament damage against Western Force in Perth on Wednesday, Healy was the firm favourite to wear number one in the opening Test – Gatland has been steadfast in refusing to discard the others.

Ulster ace Bowe is in a race against time, but Gatland is prepared to give him that in the hope is that he may yet return for the latter stages of the tour.

In view of the Kiwi's pessimism with regard to Bowe's prospects in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's 22-12 victory over Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium, it is quite remarkable that the Monaghan magician is in the frame at all.

Having undergone surgery – which involved the insertion of a metal plate – to repair a broken bone in his right hand, it says much for the status Bowe enjoys that he was not on the homeward-bound plane with Healy and fellow-loose-head injury victim Gethin Jenkins, ruled out by a calf problem.

Bowe has earned that stay of execution, of course; up until the moment he was injured, his form had been excellent. Both in defence and attack he was outstanding against Queensland Reds.

But it says much for Gatland's loyalty and patience that he was willing to hold fire even when he looked resigned to Bowe's demise.

"He's a huge loss for us, the experience that he brings, the ability to be able to play right wing, left wing, centre, full-back. He is a big loss for us," a despondent Gatland said.

But fast forward a few hours and a much more optimistic Lions coach was saying: "We will just have to wait and see how the surgery goes. If the surgeon says if it goes right, it could be just a couple of weeks."

Retaining Bowe in the hope that he will be able to face Australia at some stage during this tour is no mere wing-and-a-prayer affair, however.

There is a Plan B, with fellow-countryman, Zebo, summoned to make the trip from Texas to Sydney in case Sunday's optimism proves to have been misplaced. The 23-year-old's call-up has been made in view of his ability to play wing and full-back.

Zebo has skill and personality to elevate even the most routine of games above the level of mediocrity and he will relish the opportunity now presented him. He has been the stand-out performer for Munster and Ireland for the past couple of seasons and should thrive in the step-up.

Leinster's Rob Kearney – the Lions' full-back in each of their three Tests against South Africa in 2009 – is the only member of the original 37-man squad yet to feature. He, too, is a beneficiary of Gatland's patience.

Still recovering from a grade one hamstring tear, he misses tomorrow's match with Combined Country at Newcastle, which means the best case scenario is that his first outing will be against NSW Waratahs on Saturday in Sydney, the fifth fixture of the 10-games programme.

Now that is cutting things very fine indeed, and with Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg performing so impressively in their outings to date, in truth, at this moment, a place in the Test side looks a very long way off for the European rugby's Player of the Year in 2012.

But clearly offering Kearney encouragement ahead of this weekend's clash with Waratahs, Gatland said: "It was good to see Rob running around yesterday and kicking a ball. Hopefully he is going to play a full part in training and be available for selection."

And following a hamstring scan after the match against the Reds, Test fly-half shoo-in Jonny Sexton got a Gatland thumbs-up, too, with the coach insisting: "It's just a bit tight, but he's OK."

Belfast Telegraph

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