The official line from the Lions camp in Carton House yesterday was that Sean O’Brien continues to make progress with the knee injury that is threatening his participation in Saturday’s RaboDirect Pro12 final against Ulster.
A quick read between the lines, however, would suggest that the flanker will not play again until the Lions’ third tour appearance, against the Queensland Reds on June 8, after the mixed messages from Warren Gatland and the province on Monday.
Leinster said he was doing just dandy, Gatland said he wouldn’t be good to go until the Brisbane game and then a Lions communique later that night said, hey presto, the guy is coming along great, don’t you know.
“It’s my understanding with Sean that he is getting a lot better,” said Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree. “He has got a lot better over the last 24-48 hours and with regards to this weekend’s game you will have to watch this space.”
If that smacked of a PR spiel, then what followed was infinitely more interesting when the Englishman was asked a fairly routine question as to what he perceived to be O’Brien’s best position.
“I’m not trying to be funny here but back row,” said the former Lions Test prop. “I think he will play all three positions. He will be a good impact player and I think he is an exceptional talent.”
The term impact player’ is one dreaded by every player and only a handful of weeks have passed since O’Brien himself declared his intention to avoid the bench on the forthcoming tour Down Under.
With O’Brien absent this weekend, that still leaves 13 of Gatland’s squad expected to feature in the Pro12 and English Premiership deciders (Leicester and Northampton contesting the latter) and the suspicion is that will prove unlucky for some.
The Lions have been strangely fortunate in the lack of cry-offs thus far but, as Rowntree intimated, give it time. That said, he denies that those currently in camp are at an advantage over those absent, although Dan Lydiate thinks differently.
The Welsh flanker is expected to beat O’Brien and Tom Croft to blindside role for the first Test against Australia and the fact is that both the Englishman and Irishman have been otherwise engaged this past ten days with Leicester and Leinster.
“Yeah, it’s harder for them boys to come in because as soon as they come in we’re flying straight away,” he admitted. “They have to get up to speed straightway whereas we’ve had a couple of weeks to run the patterns and plays and stuff.”
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