Friday, December 25, 2009

Lions back and ready to roar for Gatland in Six Nations

WARREN GATLAND is to receive two bumper Christmas presents with British Lions Adam Jones and Lee Byrne primed to return to action in the best shape of their rugby careers.

Wales’ lack of depth at tight-head prop in the absence of Jones was cruelly exposed during last month’s disappointing four-Test series with their scrum under the pump.

And, even though makeshift full-back James Hook did well at No 15, the strength, timing and penetration of full-back Byrne in attack was missed during the defeats against New Zealand and Australia.

Wales coach Gatland will be desperate to see two of his Lions stars – scrum-half Mike Phillips will miss the start of the Six Nations after under-going ankle surgery – return in time to mount a case for selection for the February 6 clash with England at Twickenham after seeing confidence take a heavy knock during the autumn campaign.

Fifty-six times Wales capped Jones dislocated his right shoulder after being illegally charged into at a ruck by Springbok hard-man Bakkies Botha while shining for the Lions in the second Test with South Africa in Pretoria on June 27.

He had an operation to repair the damage and has received permission to make his playing come-back, probably next Saturday off the bench as a replacement against Viadana at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium in the Heineken Cup.

Byrne was superb for the Lions during the warm-up matches in South Africa but limped out of the series in the opening Test after suffering a recurrence of the foot injury which had flared up during last season’s Six Nations.

He has had surgery to a ligament but it has to be carefully managed to prevent it flaring up again and putting his career in jeopardy.

The 29-year-old is due today to kick a ball for the first time but reports being pain-free and has pencilled in his come-back for the Ospreys in their Boxing Day shoot-out with neighbours the Scarlets in Llanelli.

There is more good news for Gatland with his Wales skipper Ryan Jones due back soon from the back trouble which forced him to pull out of the 33-12 hiding against Australia at the Millennium Stadium and lock Ian Evans ready to return after recovering from a chest injury.

Ospreys boss Scott Johnson paid tribute to the professionalism, dedication and commitment of Byrne and Adam Jones.

“To be fair on Adam, we had an agreement. He has got to the weight despite everyone thinking he would balloon out really,” beamed the former Wales and Australia skills guru.

“After the Lions everyone thought he would take it easy but he’s been exemplary and his weight is now back to what it was when he went on the Lions tour. His strength is to where it was too.

“You couldn’t ask for a more professional attitude regarding a comeback so you’ve got to give praise where it’s due. He’s done really, really well.

“I think it’s important for the game in Wales really. He’s been missed but I always look at things positively.

“I think Wales need to find other tight-heads as well and it’s given us a chance to play some young kids and see how they go so it strengthens the pool of talent.

“We could have gone to the open market and replaced Adam. I didn’t think that was in the best interests of Welsh rugby and I still don’t.

“While we may, from everyone’s view, suffered a bit of pain through that I think we will get plenty of gain.

“He’s been missed but the depth in our squad has increased, that’s a good thing moving forward.

“We will welcome him back – there’s no doubt about it. It’s a fine sight to see because the day never seemed to be getting closer but it’s arrived, it’s good and it’s good for the game here.”

Switching his attention to Byrne, Johnson said: “Lee is not that far away. I must give the region full credit. We have got three physios here. The Welsh give their physio a day a week as well.

“He’s probably been in as good as hands as anywhere. Lee’s been diligent. He looks absolutely fantastic. Physically, he’s probably in the best shape that I can remember Lee being in.

“I think he’s done really well. Kids get criticised a lot in the negative way but you have got to acknowledge the positive.

“When you are talking about Adam and Lee, physically they look a million dollars so they have done their part in their preparation to get back so full credit to them. Lee will start to come back. I think he can start kicking on Wednesday which is not far on being full in.

“We will have a look at it but all reports from the scans and that, it’s a pretty positive result but I have been through this (type of foot injury) with Sam Cordingley (former Australia and Swansea scrum-half) as well. It was an epic, Sam’s.

“This was managed slightly differently. Let’s hope it’s positive, Lee’s certainly been in a positive frame of mind.

“He’s been missed, internationally and with us.”

With Ryan Jones and Evans already on the way back, Gatland’s remaining injury concerns are Phillips, who could be fit for the latter stages of the Six Nations, wing Shane Williams (hamstring), back-up prop Duncan Jones (foot), Lions hooker Matthew Rees (groin) and his Scarlets wing colleague Mark Jones (knee).

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