Welsh winger George North has been passed fit to play against Australia after missing the matches against the Waratahs and Brumbies with a hamstring problem that he picked up against Combined Country last Tuesday.
The news provides a timely boost for the Lions who fielded an underprepared side in their defeat to the Brumbies after the injury crisis in the backline appeared to be getting the better of them.
None of the the three-quarter line for that game - Englishmen Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt and Christian Wade and the veteran Welshman Shane Williams - had been with the squad for more than a week.
Despite the good news regarding North, experienced backs Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe look set to miss out on Saturday through leg and hamstring injuries respectively. England centre Manu Tuilagi also remains a major doubt with a shoulder problem. Head Coach Warren Gatland will name his side on Thursday.
Backs coach Rob Howley said to reporters: “George came through a fitness test this morning and I’ve never seen him in better shape”, and described the news as ‘a big boost for us’.
North, who has 31 caps for Wales despite being just 21 years old, has been in fine form on the tour so far and is regarded as a definite starter for the Lions when fit.
Howley praised the youngster’s powers of recovery after his grade 1 hamstring tear last week, saying: “His whole focus has been getting himself right. It is completely different from other tours we have been on, the professionalism among these talented players.”
North’s availability effectively sees his compatriot Alex Cuthbert, Scot Sean Maitland and Irishman Simon Zebo fighting it out for the other wing berth. If Roberts fails to recover from his injury, his in form Wales team mate Jonathan Davies is expected to start at inside centre alongside Brian O’Driscoll, who is on his fourth tour.
The half backs will be Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton with Leigh Halfpenny taking on the place kicking duties from full back.
In the forwards, the back row is likely to be made up of captain Sam Warburton, England’s dynamic flanker Tom Croft and Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip, although Toby Faletau’s good form could have forced him into the reckoning.
Alun Wyn Jones and 2009 captain Paul O’Connell will be the second row pairing. England’s Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola compete for a place on the loose head, with Adam Jones expected to start on the tight head. Hooker, a position where no player has truly laid a marker down on tour, sees Richard Hibbard fending off competition from England’s dynamo Tom Youngs.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, are expected to name three debutants in their side on Saturday with Waratahs fullback Israel Folau expected to be named on the wing, just five months after his conversion from Rugby League.
The Brumbies inside centre Christian Lealiifano and flanker Ben Mowen are also set to make their bows. James O’Connor has fought off competition from Kurtley Beale and Berrick Barnes to start opposite Sexton at outside half. The Reds’ James Horwill will be the side’s captain when Robbie Deans announces his squad on Thursday.
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