INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Paul O'Connell in line to skipper Lions as Sam Warburton emerges as injury doubt
The Munster talisman may lead the team out after all.

BRITISH AND IRISH Lions captain Sam Warburton is in doubt for this week’s tour opener against the Barbarians after sitting out training in Hong Kong with a knee problem, officials said today.

Warburton was on the sidelines as his team-mates, cooled by huge pitchside fans, sweated their way through an hour-long workout in afternoon temperatures hitting 32C (90F) and relative humidity approaching 90 percent.

Wales’s Six Nations-winning skipper, who arrived with the rest of the 37-man squad yesterday, must now be a doubt to lead the team out against the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday. Assistant coach Rob Howley said the 24-year-old picked up the injury in training before the squad flew out to Hong Kong.

“Sam had a slight bump in training last week. It was important not to aggravate that before Saturday,” said Howley. “It’s a bit puffy, that’s all.”

Even if the problem is minor, coach Warren Gatland may decide not to risk Warburton against the Baa-Baas with nine more matches in Australia, including three Tests, to come.

“There is that thought process (not to take a risk),” Howley said. “The thing about the Lions is there is a lot of strength in depth among the 37 players. The quality we have in the back row is there for all to see.”

But the injury further complicates selection for the Lions’ first ever game in Asia after Gatland said he would not use those who were in action for their clubs last week. On Saturday, the Lions will also be without prop Gethin Jenkins, who has a calf strain, while back-row Sean O’Brien has been struggling with a knee injury, meaning three players are doubtful of the 22 who have been together for the past two weeks.

“Obviously in terms of selection we want to look at the players who haven’t played in the last couple of weeks,” said Howley. “We have to remain open-minded about who we select. As a Lion you want to get that first game under your belt. So those guys that start on Saturday can put a personal marker down.”

Warburton’s absence would mean an early chance for his compatriot and exciting back-rower Justin Tipuric to stake a claim for a Test place in the number seven shirt. It could also mean veteran Irish lock Paul O’Connell, who led the Lions on the 2009 tour of South Africa, wearing the armband once more.

Brian O’Driscoll cools down during training. Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Gatland will reveal his starting line-up tomorrow but the Barbarians have already named their 15, with Sergio Parisse leading a beefed-up team from the one that were mauled 40-12 by England at Twickenham on Sunday. As well as number eight Parisse, fellow Italian stalwart and tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni and All Blacks wing Joe Rokocoko were also drafted in as reinforcements.

Howley believed the Barbarians would provide tough opposition and stressed the importance of the Lions getting a “good hit-out” in their first tour encounter. Despite the large fans at Aberdeen Sports Ground, the Lions’ first training session in Hong Kong lasted only an hour on Wednesday. But Howley said the tough conditions would stand them in good stead before they head to Australia.

© AFP, 2013

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