Belfast Telegraph

Fresh injury fears stalk Lions' Paul O'Connell and Alex Corbisiero

By Conor George

Paul O'Connell's right arm was secured in a sling yesterday amid fears his Lions' tour is over after suffering an arm injury in the final minutes of Saturday's Test win over Australia.

There were unconfirmed reports the Ireland lock may have fractured a bone in his hand but the official word is that his injury is being "treated and assessed" in the hope that it will not turn out to be as serious as is feared.

O'Connell has been one of the stand-out tour performers so far and if he is forced out it could prove a fatal development for the Lions' prospects of a first series win in 16 years.

There was no mention of O'Connell's injury during yesterday's squad update by Warren Gatland. Indeed the Lions' coach insisted that the only slight concern was surrounding prop forward Alex Corbisiero's "tight calf".

That injury has now apparently proven more worrisome with Ulster and Ireland's Tom Court called into the Lions' squad and onto the bench for tomorrow's game against Melbourne Rebels.

The significance of O'Connell's potential loss cannot be overstated. He orchestrated a 100% return from their 12 line-outs on Saturday night and has been one of their most effective players at the breakdown.

Should O'Connell be ruled out his loss will be particularly costly after it was confirmed that Australian captain James Horwill somehow escaped censure for stamping on Alun Wyn Jones' face during Saturday's game.

In handing down his decision, Judicial Officer, Nigel Hampton QC cleared Horwill of any intent.

It is an astounding verdict and one that will certainly cause those in the Lions' camp to scratch their heads.

O'Connell is due further assessment today when it is likely a decision on whether or not he remains with the squad will be taken.

If O'Connell is forced to depart then it will be a potentially ruinous development and has helped take further sheen off a win the Lions scarcely deserved on Saturday night after a performance that was less than exemplary.

Indeed it was somewhat bizarre to hear Warren Gatland claim after the game that the Lions "deserved the win" ... although not as inexplicable as his injury-update given the day's developments.

When probed as to the 'why' about his assessment of the victory, Gatland's response was pock-marked with flaws, much as his team's performance was.

"First of all because of the scoreboard. And we were the only side to play a bit of rugby. It wasn't the prettiest but we deserved it," the Lions' coach claimed.

The scoreboard certainly was in their favour at the end of the game but his claim that his Lions side was the play-making one was misleading and, frankly, erroneous. Whenever the game opened up the Lions were in trouble.

Australia, prompted and cajoled into playing rugby that was often more progressive and attractive by their skilful scrum-half Will Genia, deserved better but the pay-off was very positive for the Lions.

George North and Alex Cuthbert scored tries of top quality and surely the salutary lesson learned by Gatland regarding his initial selection and his replacement policy will see a much improved performance by the Lions' management next weekend.

For certain Tommy Bowe must come into consideration to start on Saturday – "Tommy's a world-class player. We wouldn't have risked George North on Saturday if we weren't confident of Tommy's fitness for next weekend," said Gatland – and there should be other changes too.

Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray will also challenge for places in the Test 23 if not the starting team.

Mike Phillips was comprehensively out-played by his opposite number and his lack of pace was exposed when the diminutive Genia scorched past him in the lead-up to Folau's opening try. He was also caught for pace when he broke himself.

It might be something of a leap but since breaking through in Ireland, Murray has consistently shown his ability to rise to the next level and he has not looked out of place on this tour.

His relationship with –in particular – Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip would also benefit the Lions in an attacking capacity while Brian O'Driscoll would also benefit outside them again.

Similarly, Sean O'Brien's ball-carrying strengths would have been ideal in the final 20 minutes of Saturday night's game. Croft offers a great line-out option but surely the presence of Heaslip, O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones dilutes the need for him in this regard?

The Lions desperately need a stronger performance next Saturday. That they were within one kick of losing to a team who lost their first choice kicker in the first minute and played the last 30 minutes of the game with their open-side flanker at inside centre is hugely concerning.

The Australian back division was decimated through the game but such is their strength in depth that they will be able to call on some top quality replacements without unduly upsetting the balance of their side.

It will also be hugely concerning to the Lions that had Leali'ifano not been injured in that first minute tackle by Jonathan Davies the Wallabies' first choice goal-kicker would surely have enjoyed a better return than either James O'Connor or Kurtley Beale.

With all the focus on Beale's two late misses – "I couldn't believe he was wearing moulded studs," said Gatland – O'Connor's misses, especially his two first half shanks, have been overlooked. In all the Wallabies left 14 points behind them.

On another night that could have been fatal for the Lions.

They won the match without playing well and have the potential to play much better. They are also in control of the series at this juncture and can wrap it up next weekend but will only do so if they show massive improvement.

And if Gatland selects the right team. For one thing is certain ... the Australians will come back all the stronger and more dangerous after this loss.

It was going to be a difficult ask under the best of circumstances. If the Lions have to do so without O'Connell it might just prove impossible.

Scorers Australia: I Folau 2 tries, J O'Connor con, 2 pens, K Beale pen. Lions: G North, A Cuthbert tries. L Halfpenny 3 pens, 2 cons

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