HONG KONG (AFP) –
British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton is in doubt for this week’s tour opener against the Barbarians after sitting out training in Hong Kong with a knee problem, officials said on Wednesday.
Warburton was on the sidelines as his team-mates, cooled by huge pitchside fans, sweated their way through an hour-long workout in afternoon temperatures hitting 32C (90F) and relative humidity approaching 90 percent.
Wales’s Six Nations-winning skipper, who arrived with the rest of the 37-man squad on Tuesday, must now be a doubt to lead the team out against the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday.
Assistant coach Rob Howley said the 24-year-old picked up the injury in training before the squad flew out to Hong Kong.
“Sam had a slight bump in training last week. It was important not to aggravate that before Saturday,” said Howley. “It’s a bit puffy, that’s all.”
Even if the problem is minor, coach Warren Gatland may decide not to risk Warburton against the Baa-Baas with nine more matches in Australia, including three Tests, to come.
“There is that thought process (not to take a risk),” Howley said. “The thing about the Lions is there is a lot of strength in depth among the 37 players. The quality we have in the back row is there for all to see.”
But the injury further complicates selection for the Lions’ first ever game in Asia after Gatland said he would not use those who were in action for their clubs last week.
On Saturday, the Lions will also be without prop Gethin Jenkins, who has a calf strain, while back-row Sean O’Brien has been struggling with a knee injury, meaning three players are doubtful of the 22 who have been together for the past two weeks.
“Obviously in terms of selection we want to look at the players who haven’t played in the last couple of weeks,” said Howley. “We have to remain open-minded about who we select.
“As a Lion you want to get that first game under your belt. So those guys that start on Saturday can put a personal marker down.”
Warburton’s absence would mean an early chance for his compatriot and exciting back-rower Justin Tipuric to stake a claim for a Test place in the number seven shirt.
It could also mean veteran Irish lock Paul O’Connell, who led the Lions on the 2009 tour of South Africa, wearing the armband once more.
Gatland will reveal his starting line-up on Thursday but the Barbarians have already named their 15, with Sergio Parisse leading a beefed-up team from the one that were mauled 40-12 by England at Twickenham on Sunday.
As well as number eight Parisse, fellow Italian stalwart and tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni and All Blacks wing Joe Rokocoko were also drafted in as reinforcements.
Howley believed the Barbarians would provide tough opposition and stressed the importance of the Lions getting a “good hit-out” in their first tour encounter.
Despite the large fans at Aberdeen Sports Ground, the Lions’ first training session in Hong Kong lasted only an hour on Wednesday. But Howley said the tough conditions would stand them in good stead before they head to Australia.
“We talk about stress training. It’s obviously a huge part of what we do. It is something that will benefit all the squad and particularly those that play later on against Australia,” Howley said.
“The players may not feel like that though.”
Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray agreed: “It was good for us to get out today and get used to it. By the match we’ll be acclimatised.
“Obviously you’ll need a lot more water in it than you’d normally be used to at home. But we’ll just get on with our game.
“You’re sweating a lot out there. I don’t want to lose too much weight. There’d be nothing left of me.”Published 29 May 2013, 20:10 IST