The British and Irish Lions are sweating on the fitness of a number of key candidates for their tour to Australia next year.
Ireland’s blockbusting back row forward Sean O’Brien and English flank Tom Croft are still both waiting to launch their seasons, although they were always going to be long-term projects.
But October was particularly cruel to the Irish, with Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best being counted out of the November series of internationals with back, ankle and neck problems.
They followed Wales prop Adam Jones onto the sidelines - he is likely to be out until Christmas with knee worries - and England have serious concerns about their Northampton Saints double act, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, having already seen Ben Foden ruled out for almost three months.
Throw in Dan Lydiate’s substantial setback and you have a long list of potential tourists sitting in the stands rather than taking part out on the pitch.
“Injuries are part of the game - you never know when they are going to hit you and you just have to accept them. They come with the territory,” said a philosophical Lions tour manager, Andy Irvine.
“What they can do is offer opportunities to younger players to seize their chance and, with some of the older players, they can provide a break from playing. That isn’t always a bad thing in a season like this because it can mean they get a rest and are fresher for the tour.
“I have always believed that form is temporary and class is permanent in rugby. So, providing rehab goes well, and players return to peak fitness, there should be no problem in getting them back into contention for Lions places.”
Meanwhile, former Lion Lewis Moody reckons stopping David Pocock and winning the battle of the breakdown will be crucial if the next pride of Lions are to secure series success Down Under.
Moody was a Test Lion on the 2005 trip to New Zealand when Richie McCaw provided the platform for the All Blacks to run riot and he knows that stopping the world’s other most prominent openside could ensure it’s an altogether different scenario across the Tasman.
“David Pocock’s a very good player. He’s been sorely missed in the Australia team and his return will be welcomed. He’ll certainly be one of the players the Lions will be targeting,” said Moody, who was a try-scorer in the third Test against the New Zealanders seven years ago.
“He’s so strong. His upper body strength, and his arms and chest in particular, mean that, once he’s on that ball, he’s like a limpet and very hard to remove.
“The key for the Lions is to take him out of the equation before he can get to the ball! It’s the way we used to deal with McCaw - get in his line and don’t let him get on the ball because, once they’re in there, they’re very hard to move.”
Moody is convinced the Lions possess the personnel to combat the Australian snaffler, though, with Wales skipper Sam Warburton his tip to start at No.7 for Britain and Ireland’s elite.
But whoever Warren Gatland picks in that role in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Moody insists it will be the balance of the back row and the work ethic of the team as a whole that determine whether the Lions rule at ruck time.
“There are a lot of players who are putting their hand up for that seven shirt,” added Moody.
“It could be Sam Warburton or Chris Robshaw, or even Justin Tipuric who’s pushing Warburton for Wales.
“Sam had a fantastic year last year. He’s struggled with injury but, if he can remain fit, I think he’ll be the first-choice seven.
“From a set-piece, the breakdown is normally a seven-on-seven thing in terms of beating that guy to the ball but around the pitch you rely on the rest of the team to do their jobs.
“It’s about clearing rucks, getting to the breakdown before the opposition and making sure that, when you get there, you move people out of the way at the first point of contact.
“That’s something that a lot of backs have struggled with in the past but it’s something that’s changing now in the modern game, especially as the backs are getting bigger and bigger these days.
“You have to have a balanced back row and there are so many variables and so many options for the Lions.
“Back row is always such a strong position so the difficult thing is that there will be a lot of quality players who miss out on a Lions tour. That’s good for the Lions because it just shows how much quality there is out there.”
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