Lions head coach Warren Gatland has admitted his first serious injury concern of the tour, with fullback and 2009 tourist Rob Kearney the unfortunate victim. He was a late withdrawal from Leinster’s squad for the RaboDirect final against Ulster, and did not play a part in the Lions’ victory over the Barbarians at the weekend. He has also been omitted from the squad for Wednesday’s game against the Western Force.
Gatland told the press on Monday in Perth: “Rob Kearney’s a little bit of a concern for us at the moment. He’s got a grade one tear and we will see how he responds. We’re potentially prepared that the hamstring injury may not heal as quickly as we might have liked and we will put some other potential plans in place.
“We want to give him a bit of time. We scanned him in Hong Kong and it came back as a grade one tear and the medics have put in a plan for the next week or so. We feel we have cover; we have Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg while Sean Maitland has played quite a bit at fullback. Potentially if we do get another knock we may have to think about a replacement. There are some markers put in place and if he can hit them then we can potentially bring him back. But it’s a little bit concerning at this stage.”
So if he does head home, who might be his replacement?
With England the only nation not represented at fullback, Mike Brown and Alex Goode will be near the top of the list. Goode’s form has waned since making his international debut last summer, while his at times ponderous style is not to everyone’s taste. Brown would probably be a more popular choice, as he offers more counter-attacking ability but is equally as strong in defence.
Ben Foden could also be in with a shout, given his fine end-of-season form, but after sitting out large chunks of the season his inclusion would be a huge leap of faith from Gatland. James Hook is another worth mentioning, given that he can cover most of the back line.
With Maitland able to cover fullback, could another winger be called up? A bolter like Christian Wade would be a popular but wildly adventurous choice, while someone like Simon Zebo would also add an X-factor – and he can play fullback.
A left-field choice would be Jonny Wilkinson – many people think he is likely to be called up at some point anyway, and while this would leave the Lions with only two specialist fullbacks it would bolster their options at outside half, where Sexton and Farrell are currently the only recognised operators. He was also contacted by Gatland initially but only turned it down to focus on Toulon and the Top 14 – with that now having come to an (unhappy) end for him, there is speculation aplenty that come the first injury Wilkinson will get the call-up. Gatland is obviously an admirer, and is his admission that they have ‘plenty of cover’ at fullback a hint that Jonny could be in line for a return to Lions duty?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43