The Scottish Mail on Sunday

War­bur­ton poised for first Test heartache

Skip­per may have to pull out of open­ing show­down

- From Sam Peters IN CHRISTCHUR­CH

SAM WAR­BUR­TON could be about to face one of the tough­est de­ci­sions of his 28-year-old life.

With in­jury re­strict­ing the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lions cap­tain to just 66 min­utes of rugby so far on tour, War­bur­ton faces a race against time to be fit for the first Test and may have to tell coach War­ren Gat­land he should not be con­sid­ered for se­lec­tion.

The man­age­ment re­main op­ti­mistic that the Welsh­man will be fit to face the High­landers on Tues­day af­ter he suf­fered an an­kle in­jury in the open­ing win against the New Zealand Pro­vin­cial Bar­bar­ians — his first game since dam­ag­ing knee lig­a­ments while play­ing for Cardiff Blues against Ul­ster on April 7.

But as op­ti­mistic as they may be, 66 min­utes of rugby in more than two months is nowhere near enough to be fit to face the world cham­pi­ons in their own back­yard.

War­bur­ton must play at least 50 min­utes on Tues­day, and again against the New Zealand Maori next Satur­day, to have a chance of be­ing able to jus­tify his place in the start­ing line up for the first Test, with Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander both push­ing hard for a place on the flank along­side Taulupe Fale­tau at No 8.

If he doesn’t it is hard to see how he can jus­tify a start­ing place at Eden Park on June 24.

‘Play­ers know those risks when they go into Lions tours,’ War­bur­ton told The Mail on Sun­day last month be­fore the squad de­parted. ‘I know that my­self there’s ev­ery chance that I won’t start that first Test.

‘I’d be dis­ap­pointed if I knew I was not play­ing well enough and I’m in that start­ing team. I know as a player, and War­ren knows this, I’d be ready to take that dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion away from him by say­ing, “I know I’m not play­ing well enough to start this Test”. If that’s how I feel then that’s what I’ll say.’

Two months af­ter be­ing in­stalled as cap­tain for the sec­ond suc­ces­sive tour, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of leg­endary Lions lead­ers Willie John McBride and Martin John­son, War­bur­ton was ap­par­ently as­sured of his spot against the All Blacks hav­ing en­joyed an ex­cel­lent in­ter­na­tional sea­son af­ter stand­ing down as Wales’ most capped skip­per.

But in­juries have se­verely ham­pered his pre-Test prepa­ra­tion and O’Brien’s out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion against the Cru­saders yes­ter­day fol­lowed Justin Tipuric’s su­perb backs-to-the-wall con­tri­bu­tion in de­feat to the Blues last Wed­nes­day.

Both play­ers are pressing hard for War­bur­ton’s spot on the flank while Stander of­fers the ball-car­ry­ing bal­last needed in Billy Vu­nipola’s in­jury-en­forced ab­sence and would be ideal for the bench.

Fully fit, War­bur­ton would be the first name on Gat­land’s teamsheet and he has an im­pres­sive his­tory of re­turn­ing from in­jury and hit­ting his straps quickly — just as he did on tour to Aus­tralia four years ago.

But he is not su­per­hu­man and the odds, at the mo­ment, ap­pear stacked against him. SOME­TIMES on Lions tours the best selections come about al­most by ac­ci­dent. The his­tory of the fa­mous team is lit­tered with play­ers who de­fied pre-tour prediction­s which cast them as des­tined for the mid­week dirt-track side only to de­mand in­clu­sion with eye-catch­ing per­for­mances in the warm-up games.

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 ??  ?? THE LIONS TOUR 2017

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