The British and Irish Lions returned to winning ways at the weekend with a hard-fought 12-3 victory over Super Rugby side Crusaders, and now fans are eagerly looking ahead to the first Test against the All Blacks in twelve days’ time.
From the despondency of the Blues defeat to the elation of the Crusaders victory, a rollercoaster of emotion has been enjoyed and endured by the Lions and their fans this past week.
Regarded as a crucial contest on Saturday against the Super Rugby leaders, Lions boss Warren Gatland named a powerful side to deliver the goods. Deliver it they did, in what was their best and most cohesive performance of the tour so far.
It looks like the hours training together is finally paying off. Individuals are becoming a team, operating off the same page. If they can just sort out their execution in the final five metres, the Lions will be all but ready for the All Blacks.
Notable from the side on Saturday was the absence of squad captain Sam Warburton. Having hurt his ankle in the opening game against the Provincial Barbarians, he was forced to sit out the Crusaders clash.
Set to return on Tuesday to face the Highlanders, Warburton has revealed that he may not be ready for the first All Blacks Test on June 24.
“I definitely need more games. I definitely admit that and I knew that coming into the tour.
“I’ve learned from experience that it takes me at least two games and then the third game I’ll probably be playing some good rugby but Gats (coach Warren Gatland) knew that.
“I’ve received this role as tour captain and I know there’s every chance that I might not even get involved in that first Test because there’s every other player.
“I see it as I’m tour captain, and if I’ve made the Test then that would be a bonus for me, but I’ve said there’s three Tests to get selected for so it’s not the be-all and end-all with the first one.”
Having missed the final six weeks of the domestic season, the captain has only played once since April. This is certainly not the kind of preparation needed to ensure peak performance against the All Blacks.
With the likes of Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien ready at openside, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony performing well on the blindside and James Haskell ready to drop onto either flank, the question over Warburton’s criticality to the team has to be asked.
The former Wales captain is not Test ready, as he readily admitted. To include him now is to bump any of the aforementioned battle-ready back rowers out of the Test side 23.
With cover already deep on either flank and with Ross Moriarty also in the mix, though currently sidelined with a back strain, it is certainly valid to consider Warburton’s inclusion as a possible weakening of the side.
Passed fit to lead the Lions out against the Highlanders on Tuesday, Warburton has the chance to lay down a marker to Gatland. He needs game time and he needs to shine.
Unless he does so, there is a very real chance he will not measure up for the All Blacks clash on Saturday week.
One would hope that Gatland will pick his flankers on the form they have shown and not on potential and status in the squad. Warburton needs to get there on merit. Any other way would be a disservice to those that have fought hard to get their name in the hat.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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