In Depth

Lions must find momentum after dismal opening performance

Tourists struggle to beat part-timers of New Zealand's Provincial Barbarians in opening match

Sam Warburton fit for Lions duty, but tour will claim more victims

23 May

After losing key back rower Billy Vunipola to a shoulder injury, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has received some good news with captain Sam Warburton declared fully fit for the tour of New Zealand,

The Wales flanker has not played since injuring his knee in early April, but "trained fully" with other members of the squad on Monday, reports the BBC.

"That's all the boxes ticked and now I can crack on," said Warburton.

Despite the bad news about Vunipola, "Gatland exuded an ­upbeat outlook on the health of his squad" as they trained in Ireland before heading to New Zealand next week, reports Daniel Schofield of the Daily Telegraph.

Gatland did not blame Vunipola's club, Saracens, for the injury but "had hoped that the ­problem could be reassessed and ­potentially managed in New Zealand", adds the journalist. However, the player was adamant he would not be able to give his all on the tour and the coach accepted his request to pull out.

"Vunipola is a conspicuous absentee on every front but a long-standing shoulder issue, which was set to be operated upon in July, has been aggravated at the most inconvenient of moments," says The Guardian.

"More happily for Gatland X-rays have confirmed the Ireland prop Jack McGrath has only a bruised arm, with his compatriot Tadhg Furlong also able to train on Monday. While Johnny Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Rhys Webb and Ken Owens were able to do only light exercise at the squad’s temporary base outside Dublin, the Lions coaches have 30 players on parade following the semi-final wins by Scarlets and Exeter over Leinster and Saracens respectively."

Gatland said the weekend results had been in his favour, as more players than he expected had been released from club duties ahead of the final games of the season. However, many stars will still be in action this weekend and Gatland predicts he could lose up to ten players through "attrition".

The brutal tour schedule will not help, adds Owen Slot of The Times.

"To recap, the domestic finals in the Aviva Premiership and the Guinness Pro12 are on Saturday, the Lions then meet on Sunday, fly on Monday, arrive Wednesday and play Saturday," he continues.

"That is just the start and it is ludicrous. No other international side would ever do that. They wouldn’t consider it. Warren Gatland has said so himself, many times.

"How and why has this happened? The fact is that the Lions is an organisation buffeted around on the seas of rugby politics and unable to drop its anchor."

Lions rocked as Billy Vunipola forced out of New Zealand tour

22 May

The British and Irish Lions will fly out to New Zealand without Saracens number eight Billy Vunipola next week after a shoulder injury forced the player to withdraw from the squad.

"Vunipola was among the key forwards in [coach Warren] Gatland's armoury, having become an increasingly mature force for both club and country," he adds.

There are other options in the squad, including Vunipola's cousin, Wales number eight Taulupe Faletau, "but there is no question the 24-year-old Vunipola's absence will be keenly felt on and off the field… there are few back-rowers anywhere in the world with Billy's compelling mix of power and exuberance."

Vunipola's ability to make yards by "churning forward" will be keenly missed, says Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph, and his absence will damage the Lions' already remote chance of victory in New Zealand.

"Vunipola has grown in stature over the last 12 months to the extent that the England back-row forward was one of the players who would readily go toe-to-toe in the reckoning against anyone the All Blacks might field against him, including the incumbent number eight, Kieran Read," says Cleary.

"Such has been Vunipola's form he was seen as instrumental to the outside chances of a Lions success. His absence puts a severe dent in their prospects as well as their resources."

Vunipola played the full 80 minutes for Saracens in their Premiership semi-final against Exeter on Saturday, but appeared injured, says Owen Slot of The Times.

"The issues that need to be clarified are how long Vunipola had been carrying the injury for and whether he could have made it on to the Lions tour had he been rested towards the end of the club season," he says.

England flanker James Haskell has been called up as a replacement, letting the 32-year-old "fulfil his dream" of becoming a Lion.

Ben Youngs pulls out of Lions tour after cancer heartbreak

8 May 

The decision of England scrum-half Ben Youngs to pull out of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand to support his brother Tom has been backed by Warren Gatland.

Ben withdrew from the squad after learning that Tom's wife Tiffany was suffering from terminal cancer.

"The entire family received an outpouring of support from players, fans and coaches as the rugby world united behind the brothers – who will see out the Premiership season with Leicester after the club qualified for the semi-finals at the weekend – and Gatland was quick to offer his support to Youngs when he rang him on Saturday to inform him of his withdrawal," reports The Independent

The coach acknowledged that "family comes first" and has called up Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw as a replacement.

"To anyone who has been involved with the Youngs family and witnessed the brothers' emergence as England players, the decision by Ben to withdraw from the forthcoming Lions tour to New Zealand in support of Tom is not a surprise," says Mark Souster in The Times. "Indeed, the surprise would have been if he had toured after the devastating news."

The brothers' club, Leicester, will also rally round, says Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph. "Sportsmen and women are not supposed to be prey to life's slings and arrows of misfortune.

But, of course, they are. Sport is only ever a brief respite and even then, as the death of Anthony Foley showed, the horrors can come crashing through the door. The response in Munster to that terrible event in October shows that a coming together of the clans came, at least, [to] provide a measure of comfort. Leicester and Munster are cut from the same cloth: fiery, passionate, tribal folk with sincere hearts beneath that hard, competitive exterior."

Meanwhile, preparations for the tour continue. The 41 players who will travel to New Zealand assembled for the first time on Monday to receive their kit.

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