The British and Irish Lions suffered a huge blow Wednesday with their trump card Jonny Wilkinson and inside back partner Gavin Henson headlining a list of six players ruled out of the final All Blacks rugby Test through injury.
The loss of the two key players with shoulder injuries, and with captain Gareth Thomas among several doubtful starters, is a major setback for the Lions’ bid to salvage some pride in the dead rubber after being trounced in the first two Tests.
Head coach Clive Woodward has been left struggling to cobble a competitive side together for Saturday’s Test here at Eden Park with the task made more difficult without Wilkinson, so often the match winner for England and the hero in their World Cup glory two years ago.
The Lions training session Wednesday was cancelled because there were not have enough fit players and Woodward has delayed naming his Test team until Thursday.
Apart from the star midfielders, prop Andy Sheridan (ankle), flyhalf Charlie Hodgson (concussion), lock Ben Kay (burst blood vessel in eye), and Ollie Smith (ribs) have already been ruled out of the Test on medical reports released Wednesday.
Wilkinson and Henson are both suffering “stingers”, an irritation or bruising in nerves from the neck to shoulder, and while the English flyhalf should make a full recovery within a week Welsh centre Henson is healing at a slower rate.
On the doubtful list are Thomas (virus), prop Gethin Jenkins (ankle, flanker Neil Back (throat infection), wing Shane Horgan (hamstring) and centre Will Greenwood (shoulder).
It means at least two changes from the side beaten 18-48 by the All Blacks in the second Test, adding to the mammoth task for the Lions to avoid a series whitewash.
Welshman Stephen Jones will likely reclaim the No. 10 jersey after being dropped for the second Test, with Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy probably at No. 12 on a process of elimination.
Woodward said the decision to bring a record 45 players on the 11-match tour was justified given the many players out of commission three days before a Test.
“We had to delay naming our side for the third Test because we simply didn’t know who would be available,” he said.
“We needed to give some players an extra 24 hours to get over any minor problems, and we couldn’t train either because there wasn’t enough fit players.
“It goes to show that we needed these numbers of players otherwise we would not have been able to put out competitive sides in the Tests and the midweek games.
But Woodward said he would have a Test squad of 22 fit players training on Thursday and Friday.
“We’re looking forward to the match, we’ve improved every game and no one is more disappointed than myself at the outcome of the two Tests, but the whole idea of putting this team together was to make sure we went into every game competitively and that was our only chance,” he said.
Woodward said he understood why many considered his large squad to be excessive, but he knew it would be necessary in New Zealand which is “the hardest Lions tour by a long, long way.
“Without this we’d have fallen flat a long time ago in terms of putting out competitive sides.”
Tour captain Brian O’Driscoll has been sidelined since dislocating a shoulder in the opening Test and former England star Lawrence Dallaglio is another name in the long list of casualties.
The one bright spot for Woodward was an International Rugby Board judiciary official clearing prop Graham Rowntree, who had been cited for punching in Tuesday night’s match against Auckland.
Rowntree remains eligible for the third Test and with Gethin Jenkins struggling with injury there is every chance the Leicester man could start.