O’Connell, the Munster and Ireland lock on his third tour as a British & Irish Lion, was one of the stand-out performers for the tourists in the 23-21 win over the Wallabies in Brisbane on Saturday and played the full 80 minutes, but rumours began to circulate around the camp that the arm injury may be worse than first feared.
The Lions yesterday called up Ulster loosehead prop Tom Court as emergency cover for Alex Corbisiero, himself a late addition to the squad in place of the injured Cian Healy, who suffered a tight calf during the Test match. The official announcement mentioned O’Connell’s injury but merely stated the 33-year-old “continues to be treated and assessed”.
By that stage, social media websites were rife with speculation 2009 captain O’Connell had already been ruled out of the tour and at the very least his availability for this Saturday’s second Test in Melbourne appears to be in some doubt, his possible absence ending a run of seven consecutive Lions Test appearances stretching back to his debut in the first Test of the 2005 series against New Zealand.
O’Connell would be a huge loss to the Lions given his experience and current form at the lineout and in the loose, particularly with opposite number James Horwill, the Wallabies captain, free to play on in the series after the charge of “stamping or trampling” lock Alun Wyn Jones in the first Test was not upheld.
Court’s call-up came as a surprise given he’s currently Ireland’s third-choice loosehead prop behind Healy and Dave Kilcoyne and with the likes of Wales and Bath prop Paul James considered unlucky not to have made Warren Gatland’s original squad yet it appears geography has been a key factor in choosing the Australian-born Ulsterman. Court was in his hometown of Brisbane when he received the call and goes straight into the matchday squad to face the Melbourne Rebels tomorrow, replacing Mako Vunipola on the bench.
There was better fitness news for the Lions as Ireland wing Tommy Bowe was declared fit and available for the second Test.
“Tommy is one of the best players we have got available to us and one of the reasons we took the risk on George North,” Lions head coach Warren Gatland said. “If Tommy hadn’t been fit and available for this week, we probably wouldn’t have put George North in at the weekend because the medical staff were saying there was a reasonable chance his hamstring wouldn’t last 80 minutes.
“They have done a magnificent job because we found ourselves in the situation where we could take the risk on George knowing that Tommy would be fit for the second Test. There’s been no reaction (from North). He got through the game.”
Gatland added that centre Jamie Roberts may be involved in Saturday’s second Test against Australia. “We don’t think Jamie is too far away. He’s up and running and is potentially available for next weekend.”
Australia head coach Robbie Deans was yesterday waiting for word on the injuries which have made inside centre Pat McCabe (neck), winger Digby Ioane (shoulder), centre Adam Ashley-Cooper (shoulder) and full-back Berrick Barnes (head) doubts for the second Test while starting inside centre Christian Leali’ifano, knocked out in the first minute in a collision with Jon Davies, is to be reviewed now the squad has transferred to Melbourne.
The Wallabies were forced to call for reinforcements in veteran flanker George Smith, full-back Jesse Mogg and centre Ben Tapuai.