CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The British & Irish Lions are monitoring Sam Warburton’s ankle injury with Warren Gatland insistent Test spaces are still up for grabs ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Crusaders.
The Lions are nursing a “couple of knocks” from their defeat to the Blues on Wednesday with Dan Biggar going through the return-to-play protocols after a head knock and Ross Moriarty still recovering from a back spasm. Jared Payne is also on the road to recovery after being forced off with a tight calf on Wednesday.
But Warburton’s omission from the matchday squad for the Crusaders game was a surprise.
“Sam Warburton had a little bit of slight ankle strain after the first game,” Gatland explained.
“He was a bit sore, so he’s been resting that and just needs a few more days.”
He sits out Saturday’s match against the form team in Super Rugby, who have eight All Blacks in their run on side. The Crusaders are unbeaten this season and the Lions have given starts to the 11 players out of the 41 yet to begin a match in a team that features potential Test combinations.
But Gatland downplayed any notion that the team playing against the Crusaders against Saturday could resemble the XV that faces the All Blacks on June 24.
“I gave one of the coaches a piece of paper and said: ‘Write down your Test team’ and he couldn’t get anywhere near it at the moment,” Gatland said.
“Players are going to get one or two chances to make an impact before we start thinking about the Test team. We haven’t spoken about Test combinations.”
Ben Te’o is handed another start after impressing against the NZ Provincial Barbarians and Gatland feels the centres may end up giving him the biggest headache ahead of Test selection.
“Ben Te’o played well in the first game,” Gatland said. “We didn’t pick him as somebody we wanted to crash up. We picked him because he has got more to his game than that with his offloading ability. He has got some good footwork and is explosive. He’s a good strong defensive player in that 12 area.
“Jonathan Davies has been playing really well over the last few weeks for the Scarlets. He brings that experience.
“When it comes to picking the Test side, [the midfield is] going to be one of the hardest positions for us to pick, getting that combination right. You’ve got Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph. You can put Elliot Daly in there. I thought he looked good last night and we are looking forward to seeing him having another run out.
“The midfield is going to be one of the toughest calls for us on tour, getting the balance and combination right.”
For the Lions, Saturday’s match seems to be a watershed game for this group after they fell to defeat against the Blues on Wednesday. No touring side in the professional era has lost two of their first three matches but Gatland says they are keeping cards close to their chest with one eye on the Test series.
“Look, we are well aware how tough it is out here in terms of the opposition,” Gatland said.
“That’s why the challenge for us is to come together as quick as we can. These Super Rugby sides have been together for seven months and you would expect they would have a certain amount of cohesion.
“They have got All Blacks in their ranks so you know the quality of the sides. It’s a great test for us and great preparation.
“We have learned a lot from the first two games and we are conscious as well we are trying to keep a few things back behind closed doors and make sure we are right for that first Test.”