By Alan Dymock
IT’S NOT quite a case of welcoming the last stragglers inside, but many of the remaining British and Irish Lions are being reintroduced to competitive rugby this weekend.
There is still no Leigh Halfpenny for Cardiff Blues or no Simon Zebo and Paul O’Connell for Munster. There is no Rory Best for Ulster or Sean Maitland for Glasgow. Sam Warburton is out injured long-term.
Those Lions playing in France have had a lot of rugby, with the Top 14 being five games deep already. Richie Gray have seen action in Castres, Mike Phillips has played for Bayonne and all of Dan Lydiate, Jonny Sexton and Jamie Roberts have played for Racing Metro, though the latter is now reportedly out for “several weeks” with ankle problems.
In England, too, there has been no let off for Lions. Leicester Tigers played no less than four in their starting lineup on Sunday, Saints started their two new, shiny Lions and Saracens elected to play Owen Farrell for 80 minutes and bring on Mako Vunipola in the second half.
Arguably the introduction of these guys immediately is because of the competition in England and France – one of the reasons often given for the need to shake up or scrap the Heineken Cup – but there is also an element of French clubs needing the players for their impossibly long season and all involved wanting their money’s worth for big names.
Either way, there are those in the RaboDirect Pro12 who have showed a gentler touch and only now are some heroes returning to the front line. Glasgow have brought back Stuart Hogg and Ryan Grant; Alex Cuthbert is a Cardiff Blue again and Toby Faletau is back on the scene with the Dragons.
Of course, in Faletau’s case he is not coming back to a hero’s welcome and everyone patting him on the back. Head coach Lyn Jones has fired a shot across Faletau’s bow by saying: “He’s just not in the condition we were hoping he’d be in,” and making it clear that he better get back up to speed. Fast.