British Lions badly wounded by Sam Warburton's injury blow
The Lions lost their captain Sam Warburton yesterday, less than 48 hours after the Welsh flanker turned in one of the heroic performances of the tour in attempting to resist the Wallabies as they levelled things up at one Test apiece in Melbourne.
As they received confirmation of the news they had been dreading, the visitors were wondering whether had lost the series into the bargain.
Warburton's hamstring injury – a significant tear of the muscle, according to the Lions medic Dr Eanna Falvey – is a grievous blow. The Cardiff Blues player described this dark development as "incredibly disappointing", and while there was no immediate comment from the Lions hierarchy, they would rather have heard that the world was about to end.
Warren Gatland (pictured), the head coach, chose the open-side specialist as leader ahead of more experienced candidates, including the Irish stalwarts Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, because he knew how influential he would be when the chips were down.
After suffering the injury midway through the final quarter of Saturday's narrow defeat at the Docklands Stadium – he had just produced 60-odd minutes of the most committed back-row play imaginable – the Welshman stayed behind in Melbourne for a scan while the rest of the squad flew to the Queensland coast for a brief spell of relaxation. The scan results were grim. There was some suggestion that his recovery time would be measured in months rather than weeks.
"I wish the team all the best, and hope I can play some part in the build-up this week," said Warburton, who could miss the start of the domestic season due to the injury.
"I am confident that the boys can finish the job off and secure the series win." His absence from this weekend's final Test in Sydney, where the Australians are likely to start as firm favourites, will inevitably lead to a strategic and tactical rethink by Gatland and his fellow coaches. They could simply replace him with another Welsh breakaway, Justin Tipuric of Ospreys, whose form has been strong during the tour, albeit against weak opposition. But equally, the selectors could decide Warburton's withdrawal demands a root-and-branch reconsideration of the options at loose forward.
It is well known that Warburton is happiest when playing alongside the hard-tackling Dan Lydiate: indeed, the two of them were paired in Melbourne as Gatland went in search of the victory that would have brought the Lions a first series triumph in 16 years. But the downside of that selection was felt at the line-out, where the demotion of the England flanker Tom Croft to the bench was felt most acutely at the line-out, which duly went pear-shaped. Does Warburton's misfortune automatically obviate the need for the workaholic Lydiate? This will be discussed, at length.
Leading on from this, might Croft's reappearance in the starting back row signal the end of the road for the Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip, whose form at Test level has been underwhelming at best?
A flank combination of Croft and Tipuric would cry out for Toby Faletau of Wales in the central position: a No.8 who plays in prose rather than poetry, but makes more than his fair share of hard yards with ball in hand. If the coaches choose to reject the claims of Tipuric, Sean O'Brien will perform the fetching duties in the No 7 shirt.
There are several other selectorial conundrums to be solved by Gatland and company: in fact, there could ultimately be changes in each row of the scrum, at half-back and in midfield.
Not all of these potential switches can be laid at the door of Warburton's dodgy hamstring, but it is certainly the case that his sudden disappearance has prompted a serious debate in all sorts of areas.