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British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland spoke about the state of his squad. Photo: Reuters

Warren Gatland: Billy Vunipola is a big loss, but the rest of the British & Irish Lions are ‘pretty good’

Following the massive blow of the No 8’s withdrawal, coach Gatland reports the rest of his squad is fit a week out from leaving for New Zealand

Following the massive blow of Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal, Warren Gatland reported the rest of his British & Irish Lions squad was fit or getting there a week out from leaving for New Zealand.

A week after leading Saracens to the European club championship, No 8 Vunipola pulled out on Sunday, a day after aggravating a right shoulder injury in the English Premiership semi-finals. He needs surgery. He was replaced by England teammate James Haskell, another first-time Lion.

The other injured Lions include Wales hooker Ken Owens (ankle), Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien (calf), and Wales scrum half Rhys Webb (groin). They missed the Pro12 play-offs last weekend. Ireland prop Jack McGrath had an arm X-ray come back clear.

Captain Sam Warburton, who hasn’t played since hurting knee ligaments at the start of April, said he was finally able to train with full contact on Monday.
Billy Vunipola has pulled out of the British & Irish Lions squad for the tour to New Zealand. Photo: AFP

“That is all the boxes ticked, and now I can crack on,” Warburton said at the Lions’ camp outside Dublin.

They were making good progress, coach Gatland said.

He anticipates replacing six to 10 players of his original 41-man squad. The Lions in 2013 in Australia lost nine. He’s already lost two; England scrum half Ben Youngs was the first to withdraw for family reasons.

“We spend a lot of time going through the process of picking players, and trying to plan and prepare, so to lose someone is disappointing,” Gatland said. “You have just got to move on.”

Gatland said they were tempted to replace Vunipola with another No 8, but decided they were well stocked with Wales’ Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty, and Ireland’s CJ Stander. So they went for flexibility; Haskell could cover all three back row positions, plus he played Super Rugby in New Zealand for the Highlanders in 2011.

“I spoke to Billy, and he just felt that he couldn’t give us 100 per cent,” Gatland said. “You have got to respect that decision he has made and him not wanting to let anyone down.

“I did try and persuade him to come over (to Ireland) and be assessed, but he was adamant he wasn’t right. He is a big loss to us, but I fully understand the decision he made to not go on the tour. He’s had this ongoing shoulder problem for five or six months. He made that decision for himself, and he was adamant it was the right call.”

Gatland was crossing his fingers there were no more injuries among his Lions squad members playing this weekend in the Pro12 and English finals.

The Lions leave next Monday, and play the first match on their 10-match tour the following weekend against a Provincial Barbarians outfit.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Vunipola a big loss, rest of Lions ‘pretty good’