Lions in South Africa 2009

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Graham Jenkins

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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum

British & Irish Lions
This is no time for cotton wool
Graham Jenkins
April 30, 2009
Munster lock Paul O'Connell on the charge, Saracens v Munster, Heineken Cup semi-final, Ricoh Arena, Coventry, England, April 27, 2008
There will be no let-up from Munster and Lions captain Paul O'Connell this weekend © Getty Images

The cruel injury suffered by Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary that ended his Lions tour before it had begun will have sent a shockwave through the rest of the squad.

His story is the latest example of the extreme highs and lows of professional rugby - one minute you're basking in the glory of joining the elite of your sport as part of British & Irish rugby, the next you're left wondering what might have been and writing your name into their illustrious history for all the wrong reasons.

But despite fate dealing him a rotten hand, don't expect any kind of let-up in terms of commitment and intensity when his fellow Lions go in search of domestic and European glory over the next few weeks before coming together under the banner of the world-famous elite tourists.

Up to 18 Lions could be in action in this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals alone and with the Guinness Premiership semi-finals and final, the conclusion of the Magners League and the Premiership finale to play out over the next few weeks there is one thing head coach Ian McGeechan knows for sure - there will be more casualties.

McGeechan's restless nights will not end there with his anxiety set to last until the very day his squad fly out to South Africa. Should favourites Munster and Cardiff Blues make it through to this year's Heineken Cup Final at Murrayfield then 13 of his Lions could be knocking lumps out of each other just 24 hours before they board, or hobble onto, the plane. This will not be news to McGeechan who, as a veteran of six tours (two as a player and four as a coach), will have seen the damage done by injuries at first hand. But at the same time he would not expect anything but 100% from his tourists for it is that attitude that will have secured them a career-defining place in his squad.

"The understanding in rugby is that if you go in without total and utter dedication and commitment you are indeed more likely to end up with an injury," three-time Lions international Will Greenwood told this week when asked of the potential impact of the broken ankle suffered by O'Leary.

Greenwood is a perfect example of the injury toll that goes hand-in-hand with touring with the Lions. The last uncapped player to be selected for a Lions tour when he made the grade for the 1997 tour to South Africa, he subsequently suffered a near-death experience after swallowing his tongue in a midweek clash with the Free State Cheetahs. That injury ruled him out of contention for the Test series and injury would strike again four years later when an ankle injury ended his hopes of facing Australia.

Luckily, his longevity saw him selected to tour New Zealand in 2005 where he finally won his first Lions Test cap in the opening clash in Christchurch before also starting the 3rd Test in Auckland.

"If anything it is likely to re-focus the minds even more about the need to be totally committed at every breakdown and every ruck," added Greenwood. "Rugby supporters' hearts go out to Tomas and it's just one of those things. But I'm sure come May 24, there will be at least one more change - it's the lottery of rugby I'm afraid."

The history books offer dozens of examples of injuries ending tours. Some players have been lucky enough to be blessed with another Lions chance but for others that call never came. Twelve years ago the Lions scored an historic series victory over the Springboks but it came at a cost with injuries to key personnel including scrum-half Rob Howley, backrow Scott Quinnell and perhaps most horrifically, lock Doddie Weir.

The trip to Australia in 2001 was also blighted by injury with set-backs for the likes of Howley, wing Dan Luger, fly-half Mike Catt, backrow forwards Simon Taylor, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill and hooker Phil Greening stretching the Lions' resources.

"With every tour-ending injury comes an opportunity for another player and this year will be no exception with a reserve list already in place."

The most recent tour to New Zealand brought with it an injury list that went a long way to matching coach Clive Woodward's bloated original squad. Skipper Brian O'Driscoll was the most high-profile of the casualties after he was the victim of a shocking tackle at the hands of All Blacks Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu - but at least he made it to the Test series. Dallaglio, Taylor and Hill were once again victims as were Tom Shanklin and Malcolm O'Kelly.

Some may point to the demands of the modern game, which went professional in 1995, as to the reason for the glut of injuries. It is true the European season does take its toll - just ask the likes of England's Jonny Wilkinson and Wales' Gavin Henson - but touring one of the southern hemisphere giants has never been a picnic.

The gruelling tours of the past that sometimes lasted months are in stark contrast to this year's 10-match/6-week schedule but they still took their toll. The 1980 tour to South Africa, that took in 18 games in just 10 weeks set a record for the number of replacements required with eight being called up to reinforce the tourists.

Amazingly the Lions did not actually take a doctor with on tour until 1980 but this year the medical support team will include two doctors, three physios and a masseur in addition to two physical conditioners. And make no mistake, they will be kept busy.

With every tour-ending injury comes an opportunity for another player and this year will be no exception with a reserve list already in place. Although not released into the public domain, some have let slip their presence, while it is not too difficult to name the 'two or three' players in each position that McGeechan revealed he would approach. Which players will turn in a starring role for the Lions despite not currently being in the squad is perhaps a debate for another day.

Sadly, the closest O'Leary will get to this summer's tour is his TV where Sky's High-Deifnition offering will be little consolation. But he will not be the only one wondering what might have been. Let us just hope that injuries do not overshadow what is building to be a fascinating climax to the season.

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