Head coach Warren Gatland welcomed four Wales players into the British & Irish Lions squad on Saturday as preparations ramped up for next week’s first Test against world champions New Zealand but then said goodbye to another, writes Simon Lewis, Rotorua.
Lock Cory Hill, hooker Kristian Dacey, scrum-half Gareth Davies and prop Tomas Francis joined the tourists in Rotorua on Saturday following Wales’s Test win over Tonga in Auckland on Friday and were set to watch the game against the Maori All Blacks, just as the Lions announced that back-rower Ross Moriarty was ruled out from the tour after failing to overcome a nerve injury in his back.
Gatland is expected to call in two Scotland players in addition to the Welsh quartet as he looks to stick to his plan, aired on his appointment last September, to ringfence the Test matchday 23 from the two remaining tour games.
The Lions play the Chiefs in Hamilton this Tuesday, five days before the opening Test at Eden Park, Auckland, and then the Hurricanes in Wellington seven days later, between the first and second Tests and Gatland felt the need to bring in extra numbers to his initial 41-man squad in order to field a completely different 23 from the Test squad.
“We have said all along that we need to give ourselves the best chance of winning the Test series and that could potentially involve calling up players,” Gatland said.
The fact that the additional players are Welsh and Scottish has already rankled in both Ireland and England, who are touring Japan and Argentina respectively.
“It’s only a 13-hour trip from here to New Zealand,” England boss Eddie Jones told BBC Radio. “The (England) boys could be there.
“The Lions is a prestigious team – when you become a Lion, you’re remembered for life. My only comment would be, I would like to see it picked on merit rather than geographical proximity.”
Ireland, who are a 10-hour flight away from New Zealand in Japan might have expected to have seen the likes of prop Cian Healy and outside backs Keith Earls and Simon Zebo called in to bolster the Lions but the proximity of the other nations seems to have swayed in their favour.
Scotland were playing Australia in Sydney on Saturday morning while the Welsh were already in-country and faced only a two-hour drive from Auckland to Rotorua to link up with the Lions. The Scots, meanwhile, are expected to join the touring party for training in Hamilton on Sunday afternoon.
Gatland, though, is intent on giving his Lions the best possible opportunity to win the Test series and he added that each of the four national coaches was well aware of his plans.
“Bringing in these players from an identical time zone, who can hit the ground running and step straight in rather than having to adjust following long-haul travel will help us manage players before the first Test, give us quality training numbers to prepare properly as well as offering us options for selection for the Chiefs match.”
“These are players currently on international duty who we are looking forward to welcoming into the Tour party as we did with several players in 2013. I spoke to all the Home Union coaches prior to departure and explained our thinking and they were all supportive.”
The Lions were expected to name further call-ups following their match against the Maori on Saturday morning Irish time, although they said Moriarty would not be replaced.
The Wales back-row became a Lion in the opening tour victory against the Provincial Barbarians, after which Gatland appeared to blame the journey from Auckland to the match host city of Whangarei undertaken in sponsor-provided cars.
“Ross Moriarty has got a back spasm, and so has Kyle Sinkler,” Gatland said after the June 3 match. “We’ve done community stuff yesterday where the guys have been sitting in cars for five hours, coming up (to Whangarei) and probably still recovering from the effects of that flight as well. The doctors are confident they will be fine, but no injuries picked up from the match.”
On Saturday, the head coach said: “We are really disappointed for Ross. He has had a hugely impressive season, capped off with selection for the British & Irish Lions and his performance in the first match justified that selection.
“It is disappointing to see injury cut his Tour short but we wish him all the best with his recovery.”