Belfast Telegraph

Wounded lion North patched up in time for Brisbane

By Chris Hewett

Should Warren Gatland and his tourists achieve their heart's desire over the next two and a half weeks and leave the Australian rugby nation with the unpleasant task of clearing up the remains of some Wallaby roadkill, they will celebrate the expertise of their medical staff every bit as much as the goal-kicking of Leigh Halfpenny or the midfield artistry of Jonny Sexton.

If the doctors and conditioners are not quite as central to this operation as the players themselves, it is a mighty close-run thing.

This much became clear yesterday when Rob Howley revealed that the Welsh wing George North, one of the heaviest pieces of attacking artillery in the Lions' armoury, had been passed fit for Saturday's opening Test at the Suncorp Stadium – the nearest thing to a union bearpit this country has to offer.

The look on the face of the attack coach, who knows what it is to miss out on such an occasion through injury, was a picture of relief, bordering on outright joy.

Since North suffered a hamstring strain during the lopsided contest with the Combined Country XV in Newcastle a little over a week ago, he has had his prospects of an early recovery rubbished by all and sundry – not least by Gatland himself.

Only a few days ago, the head coach rated the youngster's chances of challenging for a place in Saturday's game as "less than 50 per cent".

The doctors begged to differ and the story was very different when the Lions arrived here from Canberra, scene of their dismal defeat at the hands of the ACT Brumbies on Tuesday.

"George was up early today and came through his fitness test," said Howley, the former Wales half-back who was invalided out of the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa after suffering a shoulder injury a week before the first meeting with the Springboks.

"I don't think I've seen him in better shape in all the time I've been working with him. It's a massive boost for us. His whole focus has been on getting himself right and you have to admire his diligence.

"Even in the space of the last five or six years, the quality of the medical and conditioning back-up – the sports science side of the game – has improved to an unbelievable degree," he said.

"We have so much data available to us now, we can monitor with great precision what people are doing in the course of recovery and manage them appropriately.

"If a player picked up a grade-one hamstring strain on previous tours, that might have been it for him.

"Now, we're in a position to make informed decisions that help us keep people involved."

North is not the only high-calibre wing to have made rapid strides from an injury that threatened to stop him making any strides at all. The Wallabies were equally happy with the progress of Digby Ioane, who stayed at the team camp on the Sunshine Coast after surgery on a damaged knee and returned to full training a couple of days back.

There were strong rumours yesterday that the Queensland Reds player would feature, alongside the cross-code debutant Israel Folau.

Howley went to great pains to play down the potential effect of the Brumbies defeat on Tuesday, even though that it is now widely assumed the vast majority of those involved in a dire first-half performance are now a very long way off a Test spot.

"To see the camaraderie in the dressing room afterwards between those who had played and those who hadn't was heartening," he said.

"Our pride has been hurt but sometimes a loss gets you on edge. On Lions tours, I've seen a midweek side put the Saturday team back on track.

"It's up to the team selected for this weekend to put the midweekers back on track.

"But you have to trust the players' talent on a Lions tour.

"It's important to keep the players' minds open and make them think: 'I can still put my hand up for a Test place.'"

Belfast Telegraph

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