British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland has been left counting a list of fresh injury worries following the semi-finals weekend in the Aviva Premiership and the Guinness Pro 12.
Concerns for loosehead prop Jack McGrath, flanker Sean O’Brien and scrum-half Rhys Webb pale into insignificance however, following the disastrous news yesterday that barnstorming No.8 Billy Vunipola has withdrawn from the tour of New Zealand due to a persistent shoulder problem.
In no uncertain terms, this is a massive blow to the Lions as despite having missed a number of months earlier this season due to a knee injury, Vunipola’s return late in England’s Six Nations campaign signalled his automatic inclusion in the 41-man squad for the ten match tour next month.
Now, with a 20 stone hole left at the back of the scrum, Gatland has called Wasps and England star James Haskell into the squad as cover.
Were Vunipola fit and ready, he would be the nailed on No.8 for the three Tests, with Taulupe Faletau waiting on the bench. Lion captain Sam Warburton, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric would be the likely four to fight it out for the starting spots on the flanks.
Now with the English man ruled out, everything changes. Faletau is the assumed benefactor of Vunipola’s withdrawal as, being a specialist No.8, he is the logical choice to slot into the vacated jersey.
There is, however, a new and intriguing set of potential back rows for Gatland to consider, all of which could see even more power and experience called into the action.
Assuming Faletau is now nailed on, CJ Stander, who are normally found terrorising from the flanks, could slot into the reserve No.8 spot.
Captain Warburton, who can operate on either flank, would take the number 6 jersey, with Moriarty waiting on the bench. Over at openside, Justin Tipuric, who has been imperious in recent weeks, would take point at 7, with Sean O’Brien or new Lion James Haskell ready to join as an impact sub.
That is one new option. Another could see Moriarty drift back as a replacement No.8, with Stander taking the blindside spot and Warburton switching to openside. On the bench the options of Peter O’Mahony and Tipuric could be waiting.
With Stander available at blindside or No.8, Warburton at either flank and Moriarty also at blindside or No.8, all of a sudden it is evident that Gatland’s squad choice is one big on flexibility and shows that even with a loss as massive as Vunipola, there is still an incredible level of strength and depth to the squad.
So while the loss of Billy Vunipola is significant, don’t go writing off the Lions’ chances just yet.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena