Coach Warren Gatland must plan without Warburton for Saturday’s third and final Test after the openside flanker was revealed to have suffered a “significant tear in his left hamstring” during the 16-15 defeat in Melbourne.
Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll appears set to lead the side in Sydney for what will be the 34-year-old four-time tourists’ final Test as a Lion with Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric vying for the vacancy in the back row.
The Lions confirmed the bad news for their Test prospects yesterday after Warburton had remained in Melbourne on Sunday with team medic Dr Eanna Falvey to undergo a full medical assessment and scan, the results of which brought an end to the Welshman’s tour.
Warburton, though, will follow Paul O’Connell’s example after the Irish lock fractured a bone in his arm during the third Test and will remain with the tour party for Saturday’s Test.
“It is incredibly disappointing to be ruled out of the tour through injury as we head to Sydney for the deciding match,” Warburton said in a statement issued by the Lions from the Queensland beach resort of Noosa.
“I wish the team all the best and hope I can play some part in the build-up this week. I am confident that the boys can finish the job off and secure the series win.”
Fortunately for the Lions, the back row is where Gatland has most options in terms of strength in depth, and while Warburton was named captain, he came into the tour unsure of his Test place. Tipuric had featured in the Wales No.7 jersey during the Six Nations when his captain was injured and it was Warburton who shifted to blindside for the final game of the championship against England to accommodate his supposed understudy. Warburton even came into the tour with an injured knee and missed the first two games in Hong Kong and Perth before making his debut in red in Brisbane against the Queensland Reds, becoming the 800th player to wear the famous jersey.
The flanker made an instant impression for the Lions, though, and after an initial 74-minute run to blow away the rust in the victory over the Reds, Warburton starred in the 47-17 win over the Waratahs seven days later, rubber-stamping his place in the Test team.
Nor did he disappoint on the highest stage, leading by example last Saturday in Melbourne as the Lions improved their accuracy at the breakdown from the series opener before succumbing to injury in the 67th minute at the Etihad Stadium.
Speaking on Sunday, before Warburton was ruled out, Lions defence coach Andy Farrell placed his faith in the depth of talent in the touring party, saying “Who knows what is going to happen, whether two players will come back into contention or whether Sam doesn’t make it. Who knows? “But we’ve always said that we’ve got a good squad and we believe in everyone within the squad. We’ll back everyone to the hilt and that’s what we’ve done throughout this campaign. Whoever gets selected for this last game in Sydney, big-game players normally produce when it counts and it counts no more than next weekend.”
Nor will the Australian camp be celebrating unduly at the demise of the opposition captain, as Adam Ashley-Cooper explained when asked early yesterday to speculate on Warburton’s possible absence from the final Test.
“That would be a huge loss but there’s a lot of depth in the back-row with (Tom) Croft, (Dan) Lydiate and (Jamie) Heaslip and there’s O’Brien who’s a class act. They aren’t lacking any good sevens.”