Vunipola's withdrawal a major blow for Lions

Billy Vunipola, who has 34 England caps, has pulled out of the British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand and has been replaced by James Haskell. Lions head coach Warren Gatland acknowledged Vunipola's "honesty" in making the decision.
Billy Vunipola, who has 34 England caps, has pulled out of the British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand and has been replaced by James Haskell. Lions head coach Warren Gatland acknowledged Vunipola's "honesty" in making the decision.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The injury-induced pullout of Billy Vunipola was a "big loss" to the British and Irish Lions, but more injuries can be expected before the tour of New Zealand is over, coach Warren Gatland has said.

No. 8 Vunipola pulled out of the 41-man squad on Monday because of an ongoing shoulder injury and was replaced by another English loose forward in James Haskell.

"Any player who gets injured at this time is a big loss to the squad," Gatland told British media. "You've spent a lot of time going through the process of picking players and planning and preparing so to lose someone is disappointing.

"Given the history of the Lions we plan to lose anywhere between six and 10 players. That's just the attrition (rate) of past tours."

Vunipola is one of the most damaging ball runners in world rugby and Gatland said he had tried to convince the 24-year-old to travel to New Zealand despite the injury.

"I did try to persuade him to come over and be assessed and look at managing him, but he was adamant that he was not right," he added.

"If someone is not 100 per cent right in terms of their commitment, I fully understand and respect that decision. It was pretty tough for him. He is a big loss to us, but I fully understand the decision he made to not go on the tour."

Gatland has already lost England scrum-half Ben Youngs, who pulled out for family reasons and was replaced by Greg Laidlaw, and has a private list of players on standby in case of further injuries.

There was some good news on the injury front for Gatland, however, with Lions captain Sam Warburton confirming on Monday he had recovered from a knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines since April.

"Today I trained fully," the flanker said. "That's all the boxes ticked, and now I can crack on."

Warburton is only the second player to captain the Lions twice - the other being England's 2003 World Cup winning skipper Martin Johnson (1997 and 2001).

The Lions will begin the 10-match tour against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3, with the first of the three Tests against the All Blacks following on June 24.

The first of the three Tests is at Eden Park - a veritable fortress for the All Blacks where they have won 36 successive Tests including the 2011 World Cup and suffered their last defeat there in 1995.

"All the boys are on a similar wavelength - we've all been in the rugby environment for a number of years," said Warburton, who was sent off in the 2011 World Cup semi-final against France played at Eden Park.

"If you asked me in my career which Lions tour could I pick to go on out of any of them, if I could pick one, I would pick New Zealand, because it's New Zealand. I personally can't wait."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'Vunipola's withdrawal a major blow for Lions'. Print Edition | Subscribe