The home nations are building up to the World Cup, which is now just one week away, and we are here to wrap up the week’s goings on with a particular focus on the British & Irish Lions involved.
In a week that saw Wales’ World Cup hopes dented by a serious injury to one British & Irish Lion, captain Sam Warburton is convinced that the return of another Lion to the squad will provide a timely boost.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who booted 49 points on the 2013 Lions tour of Australia, was ruled out of the World Cup after rupturing his anterior cruciate knee ligaments while scrum-half Rhys Webb’s ankle injury means he will also not be fit for the tournament.
Webb has since been replaced in the 31-man group by veteran No.9 Mike Phillips who has 99 Test caps to his name – five of which came for the Lions across the 2009 and 2013 tours.
Originally, Phillips wasn’t one of the three scrum-halves named by coach Warren Gatland but after being given a second chance, Warburton is adamant the 33-year-old will make the most of his opportunity.
“If I had to name the one player I missed playing with most, out of any player I’ve ever played with, Mike Phillips would be up there,” said Warburton.
“Defensively he is probably the best nine in the world. When Mike is there I know the No.8 is not getting past him. It’s nice to know that I can scrummage more and not worry about chasing too hard.
“When Mike is doing fitness tests he’s up there with the rest, so it wasn’t a fitness reason for not picking him. He’s quick enough around the field. He’s also got that experience as well.
“And I think now coming back, after not getting selected for the squad, he knows this is his last World Cup – he is not going to be around when he is 37.
“It has probably given him a chance to appreciate what he has got. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do.
“I imagine he will throw everything into this and he could turn into a huge player for us.”
Pool A is being touted as a three-way battle between England, Wales and Australia but as they gear up for the World Cup opener against Fiji, England lock Geoff Parling insists they won’t be underestimating their Pacific Island opponents.
England face Fiji underneath the Friday night lights at Twickenham in a week’s time to kick-off the 2015 tournament knowing victory is vital to their hopes of emerging from Pool A.
The Red Rose ended their warm-up games in the best possible fashion by beating Ireland 21-13 last weekend and Parling, who played in all three Lions Tests Down Under two years ago, is confident they are in a good place ahead of the World Cup.
“We needed some momentum heading into the Fiji game, so to get a win against a very good Irish team was just what we wanted,” said the 31-year-old.
“I thought we played well and there was a lot of good things to take from the game.
“Fiji are vastly improved since the last time I played against them. They are up to ninth in the world on the back of their win in the Pacific Nations Cup and they are a lot more organised than in the past.
“Add into the mix that they have some very dangerous players, it all makes for a tough game of rugby for us.
“Right now we cannot even talk about Australia or talk about Wales, we have to focus solely on Fiji and nothing else.”
Ireland ended their warm-up campaign with back-to-back defeats but captain Paul O’Connell remains unconcerned ahead of their World Cup opener with Canada next Saturday.
Ireland suffered a 16-10 loss to Wales in Dublin two weeks ago before going down 21-13 to England at Twickenham last weekend.
But with reaching the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in their history as the minimum goal, three-time Lions tourist O’Connell is convinced the men in green will turn it on when it matters.
“There’s no panic,” said the 111-cap international. “There is always anxiousness. No matter how good you are playing or how bad you are playing, there’s always anxiousness.
“We’re heading into a World Cup as well so you’d loved to have won maybe one of the two of them, or put in better performances than we did.
“But we didn’t and after winning the Six Nations it serves as a bit of a reminder for us of where we are and where we need to be.
“When we have lost games in the last two years we have been very good at correcting ourselves and fixing it the following week and we haven’t really done that.
“So it’s frustrating and disappointing but it will serve us well now heading into the World Cup.”
Two-time British & Irish Lions tourist Scott Hastings admits he expects his native Scotland to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter has called on four members of the Lions' 2013 touring party in his 31-man squad – Ryan Grant, Richie Gray, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg – alongside some newer faces to the international set-up.
And Hastings, who featured on both the 1989 and 1993 Lions tours, has been impressed by warm-up displays against Italy, Ireland and France in recent weeks.
“If they don't reach the quarters then they've underperformed,” he told the Scotsman. “I expect them to do it and then it's knockout rugby.
“Everyone can see that there has been improvement under Vern Cotter. It's now up to the players, in a World Cup, to bring that intensity to their own environment and execute under pressure.
“A new season brings optimism. The wins over Italy were good and even the defeats to Ireland and France showed that they're not far off.”
And Hastings, who lined up in the centres during his playing days, believes Cotter must get his selection at No.12 and No.13 right to get the most out of British & Irish Lion Hogg.
He added: “What the combination is going to be I don't know because Peter Horne has got great hands and, in Richie Vernon, well, he's not the soft-hands option, but when he hits the right angles, he can be a thorn in the flesh of opposition midfields.
“He's a big man who gets across the gain line and, if he attracts attention, it creates space outside to exploit.
“It's all about getting the right blend at centre that can get the best out of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, who are proven finishers.”
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