The British and Irish Lions picked Simon Zebo to make his debut and named his Ireland teammate Jonathan Sexton at fly-half for the combined rugby team’s fifth tour game against the New South Wales Waratahs in two days.
Zebo, who only arrived in Australia this week after fellow Irishman Tommy Bowe broke a bone in his hand, will play on the left wing. The team will be led by squad captain Sam Warburton, who will make his second appearance on the Lions’ 10-match trip. Full-back Rob Kearney was named as a replacement after missing the first four games with a hamstring injury.
With two matches left against Super Rugby teams before the best-of-three series against Australia starts June 22 in Brisbane, Lions head coach Warren Gatland included seven players in his starting lineup for Sydney who featured in the series-opener against South Africa four years ago.
“It would be great to remain unbeaten and take that momentum into the first Test,” Gatland said in a statement. “More importantly, we are looking to finalize key playing combinations and strengthen our patterns of play during the next two matches.”
In four games so far the Lions have amassed 214 points and allowed 37, prompting speculation they may not be sufficiently match-hardened for the opener against the third-ranked Wallabies in nine days. Their toughest test so far came from the Queensland Reds on June 8, when they trailed 7-3 before grinding out a 22-12 victory.
Jamie Roberts, who will start at inside center for the second straight game, said after the 64-0 shutout of Combined Country two days ago that there’s no danger of the Lions being “undercooked” for the Tests. Having previously worked with Gatland during the New Zealander’s time as Wales coach, Roberts said training will be cranked up if the coach decides that the tuneup games lack the required physicality.
“If he doesn’t feel that we are getting to that intensity, he will certainly replicate it in training leading up to the first Test,” Roberts told reporters.
New South Wales is typically one of Australia’s strongest provincial teams, though coach Michael Cheika had been trying to put together a squad having lost 10 players to the Wallabies and another three internationals to injuries.
Flanker Dave Dennis and center Rob Horne were released from the Wallabies’ training camp today to bolster the Waratahs lineup. They’ll join fly-half Bernard Foley and scrum-half Matt Lucas, who were yesterday released from Australia’s national Sevens team. Cheika will name his team tomorrow.
Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans is also making prop Scott Sio and utility forward Peter Kimlin available for the ACT Brumbies’ June 18 game against the Lions in Canberra.
England center Billy Twelvetrees, who was called into the Lions squad overnight to provide backline cover, will arrive tomorrow and can expect to start against the Brumbies, Gatland said at a news conference. Brian O’Driscoll, George North and Manu Tuilagi will sit out the Waratahs match to keep them fresh, he added.
“We’ve got a few knocks in the backs at the moment,” Gatland told reporters. “We need to make sure that we rest a few players because the whole priority is making sure that we arrive in Brisbane next Saturday fresh and ready to go.”
Twelvetrees joins Zebo and props Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant in being added to the original 37-man roster that left London on May 27.
LIONS TEAM TO FACE WARATAHS: 15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Sean Maitland, 13. Jonathan Davies, 12. Jamie Roberts, 11. Simon Zebo, 10. Jonathan Sexton, 9. Mike Phillips, 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Tom Youngs, 3. Adam Jones, 4. Alun Wyn Jones, 5. Paul O’Connell, 6. Tom Croft, 7. Sam Warburton (captain), 8. Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard, 17. Alex Corbisiero, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Geoff Parling, 20. Dan Lydiate, 21. Ben Youngs, 22. Owen Farrell, 23. Rob Kearney.