Warren Gatland will have his fingers crossed this weekend, hoping against hope he does not lose any more key players in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness PRO12 playoff finals.
The injury to Billy Vunipola in that sensational but brutal battle between Exeter and Saracens last Saturday was a huge blow. His best ball carrying forward, a real wrecking ball, who must have been pencilled in as the Test No. 8, is out before the tour has even begun.
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland was prepared to lose players to injury and suspension, but his plans have been thrown into chaos by Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal.
Brian O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson have their say on the British & Irish Lions’ biggest backline selection conundrums one month out from the first Test against New Zealand at Eden Park.
It is sad for the Lions but even sadder for Vunipola himself. This could have been a defining moment in his career, the All Blacks simply do not have a player who can match his running power; he could have been the man to give the tourists the edge they will so badly need if they are to succeed.
Gatland would never admit it but he must be mightily relieved that Saracens were knocked out and are not involved in the final. If someone like Owen Farrell, another hugely important player because he is so abrasive and competitive [attributes which also put him at greater risk of injury], was also forced to drop out then it would all be starting to unravel before the squad even reach New Zealand.
You have to feel for Vunipola — it is very possible that he will never be a Lion, who knows what will happen in the next four years?
That period of time after you have been selected but before you actually get on the plane has always been difficult for the players and now the game is professional it is almost impossible. How do you approach those last few games when you know one moment of bad luck can ruin the dream.
Warren Gatland has been handed an unexpected extra week to work with a number of key players, including Owen Farrell, due to last weekend’s playoff results. David Rogers/Getty Image
Back in the 1970s the rugby season wound down after Easter and some of the guys would wrap themselves in cotton-wool once selected but most would still be expected to turn out once or twice for their clubs and, particularly before your first Lions tour, you were very aware that you were not yet ‘a Lion.’
Gareth Edwards still remembers an end of season game in 1968 for Cardiff before we took off for South Africa. They had injury problems and he agreed to play, telling himself he would stay out of trouble and not risk injury. But rugby is not like that; when somebody cut back inside him he instinctively threw out an arm and felt his shoulder pop-out.
He admits he thought for a moment that his dream was over, but fortunately it popped straight back in and there was no harm done.
Even if you did survive the last couple of games there was still the dreaded week at Eastbourne. The squad would get together [for the first time] and go down to Eastbourne College where we would take the first steps towards bonding into a team. In 1968, Willie John McBride was already on his third tour and knew how to pace himself but most of us were rookies and it was a very difficult time.
On the one hand you wanted to lay down a marker — to show you were the man for the Test team, not just a midweek dirt-tracker. On the other, you were very aware that you were still in the UK and not yet on the plane, not yet ‘a Lion.’ A pulled muscle or the like could rule you out of the tour.
John Taylor, left, with Lions captain John Dawes before departing for the 1971 tour of New Zealand. Barratts/EMPICS Sport
I shall never forget the final day in Eastbourne. The last session was over and there was one last medical — not hugely rigorous — to pass before leaving for South Africa. I had no injury problems but was still nervous and felt a surge of relief when the doctor confirmed all was well. I was off to Africa for three months, the adventure of a lifetime.
You have to remember people did not travel as much in those days. My first and only trip abroad before that was to play for Wales against France in Paris. I went back to the hotel room to finally pack my bags feeling pretty excited and burst into the room only to discover my roommate, Bryan West, the England flanker, almost in tears. He had been carrying a knee injury and had failed the medical.
Instead of Africa it was back to Loughborough College and teaching practice.
Nowadays with Rugby World Cups and far more tours by the individual home countries, the players are usually pretty well travelled but a Lions tour remains unique.
They are the only touring side left in world rugby — international teams usually fly in for three or four Tests and fly out again now — and even in this hard-nosed professional era the players know that being a Lion is something extra special.
I feel for you Billy.
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