Belfast Telegraph

Warburton faces a tough battle to regain his place


By Jonathan Bradley

Warren Gatland will be doing much head-scratching over the next few days as well as crossing his fingers that his injury-plagued British and Irish Lions squad doesn't suffer any more blows.

Iain Hendersonhas been rewarded for his strong showing against the Highlanders on Tuesday with a place on the bench for tomorrow's clash with the New Zealand Maori, but it is an injury to Owen Farrell that will be foremost in Gatland's thoughts.

Having already lost one of his world-class players before the tour - Farrell's Saracens team-mate Billy Vunipola had to pull out shortly before departure thanks to injury - to have another ruled out before the Test series would be a savage blow.

But also add into the mix the indifferent performances thus far from Lions skipper Sam Warburton and there are fast becoming more questions than answers for Gatland.

After putting in an impressive performance in Christchurch six days ago, Gatland has also retained the back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Taulupe Faletau.

Another such showing tomorrow would really heap the pressure on captain Warburton to win back his place for the first Test, a fact acknowledged by Gatland.

"Sam's well aware of the competition that is there at the moment," he said.

"He fully understands that that loose forward trio went outstandingly well against the Crusaders the other day.

"The challenge for them is to repeat it. And if they do it again, we'll make what we think is the right selection for the Test match.

"One of the reasons we selected him as captain of the squad is that he is an absolute quality player.

"But this tour isn't about Sam Warburton, it's about putting the squad first.

"If he's not involved in the first Test because of the performance on Saturday night he will fully understand that.

"But he'll get some game time and some opportunity to keep improving his match fitness because he hasn't had a lot of rugby in recent weeks.

"This is important for him. He got a run-out against the Highlanders, I thought he was good for a long period of the game.

"Sean O'Brien hasn't had a lot of rugby either. So they'll both get game time and Sam gets another chance on Saturday night to come and perform.

"Peter (O'Mahony) will continue to lead the team (if Warburton comes on). I think that's only fair.

"You wouldn't change your match captain to your tour captain as he comes on the field. Sam's comfortable with that.

"I don't think that's the right thing, that's not the normal way that would happen."

The Maori, who famously beat the Lions in 2005 when captained by new Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes, have been able to name a threatening panel that includes nine men capped by the All Blacks as well as future Leinster back James Lowe.

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