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British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has been forced to backtrack on his plan to field his strongest side for the tour match against the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday.
Several back-line injuries and a few sore bodies of players who have played two matches in the past week forced him to change his mind. “We’re still looking at combinations, we’ve told players there’s an opportunity to stake claims on Saturday but the test team won’t be selected until after next Tuesday,” he told a news conference on Thursday. “We haven’t even spoken about the first test in terms of that. We’ve got a few knocks in the backs and the whole priority is that we arrive in Brisbane ready to go.”
Winger Tommy Bowe was never going to play as he recuperates from a broken bone in his hand but England centre Manu Tuilagi has a shoulder problem, and flyhalf Owen Farrell and winger George North are both carrying knocks.
Farrell will start on the bench with Jonny Sexton given the chance to cement his claim for the starting flyhalf berth.
Ireland winger Simon Zebo, who was brought in as cover for Bowe, will get his first opportunity on the tour as will his compatriot Rob Kearney, who has been struggling with a hamstring problem and gets a place among the replacements.
Tour captain Sam Warburton will lead the side out for the second time after making his Lions debut in the 22-12 victory over the Queensland Reds last weekend. After playing in an all-Welsh back row against the Reds, Warburton gets the chance to gel with Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip and English blindside Tom Croft.
The injury problems in the backline were the reason why England centre Billy Twelvetrees had been called up from Argentina overnight, Gatland said.
After Saturday, the Lions have one more tour game against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Tuesday before the first test at Lang Park, Brisbane on June 22.