And so it’s finally here! The 2013 British and Irish Lions Tour has officially begun following a resounding 59-8 triumph against the Barbarians on Saturday. We’ve waited four long years since the Lions lost that heartbreakingly close series against South Africa in 2009, but if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, the next month of rugby looks very promising indeed as the combined supporters of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales look for a first victorious tour in 16 years. Yet, in the build-up to last weekend’s match, there were plenty of voices questioning the sanity of playing the ‘stop-off’ game in Hong Kong, where temperatures were consistently over 30ºC and humidity levels over 90%. Some labelled the match as a purely commercial exercise; a dead rubber played out to please the tour’s Asian sponsors HSBC. Let’s be under no illusions, the money on offer for ‘Lions Plc.’ was the main reason why the game went ahead in South East Asia (over the likes of say Argentina or USA). The four year cycle of southern hemisphere tours is, by a long way, the main form of income for the Lions management and, with Australia only able to offer nine games, it seems that Saturday’s opener in the sweltering heat was a necessary evil. That said, the game was far from a useless exercise and would have provided Warren Gatland and his coaching staff with plenty of positives ahead of their first game on Australian soil. This week’s blog takes a look at the plus points from the opening game of the tour.
Although the scoreline may suggest otherwise, this was far from an easy game for the Lions. You could argue there was little incentive for the rugby mercenaries of the Barbarians team, but you could not question the difficulty of the conditions in which the game was played. On average, the players that took to the field lost 2 kilograms in bodyweight (due to the heat and humidity) leading experienced campaigners such as Adam Jones to label the conditions as the most difficult he has played in. You would have forgiven the team if they had simply collapsed in one big, sweaty mess. Yet the professionalism and efficiency of the Lions was exemplary. It wasn’t pretty at times and examples of skilful and slick passing were at a premium (mainly due to the slimy surface of the match ball and players hands) but the Men in Red set about their task of demolishing the opposition with a ruthlessness that bodes well for the rest of the tour. With the score at 33-3 just after half time, the Lions could have easily taken their collective foot of the gas but they kept going to produce a final score that was by no means flattering. What would have pleased Gatland more than anything was that those who came onto the pitch in the second half more than matched the intensity in play of those who started the game. The competitive nature of the squad and, above all, the professionalism of the team was evident on Saturday, encapsulated by the likes of Alex Cuthbert (seemingly literally) busting a lung to score tries. If the Lions are to win the test series then each of the 37 men on tour will have to play their part by contributing to a healthy competition within the squad. The coaching staff will be delighted that the 23 who got ‘first crack of the whip’ on Saturday did just that.
The majority of those 23 players were Welsh as was always going to be the case given Irish and English involvement in domestic league finals a week before. In selecting a side filled with familiar faces, Head Coach Gatland would have sought two things from his charges – firstly, that they justify their selection in the squad (which is dominated by Welshmen) and, secondly, that they lay down a marker to the rest of the tour party, i.e. ‘You’re going to have to go some to oust us from the Test team’. And boy did they deliver! I may be slightly biased in this regard, but I thought the Welsh contingent were outstanding, with Jonathan Davies (in particular) having his best game in months. Eight out of the nine tries were scored by Welsh players and each of those try scorers looked like test-starters (Davies, Cuthbert, Dan Lydiate, Alun-Wyn Jones and Mike Phillips). I suspect there is more to come from the likes of Jamie Roberts too who, while not a stand-out player on Saturday, was still monstrously effective in the midfield. If the role of the Welsh contingent is to act as a benchmark for the rest of the squad, then it’s a role they played with aplomb last weekend. Gatland and Co. will now look to the (mainly Irish) team for Wednesday’s game against the Western Force to pick up where the Welsh boys left off.
Scrum-half for Wednesday’s game will be Conor Murray who was another player who impressed in the heat of Hong Kong. He will have to go a long way, however, to get the test nod over Mike Phillips who was in sublime form on Saturday, grabbing two tries in a Man of the Match performance. Phillips has always had his critics (mainly for his speed of delivery from the ruck) but he showed on the weekend why he is highly thought of by the Welsh management. He’s physical, abrasive, quick and a great marshal of the forward pack. He is quickly becoming the lynch-pin of Gatland’s ‘bash, bash, pass out wide’ style of play and after Saturday’s game he may well be the first name on the Lions team sheet come the first test in Brisbane. Over to you Messieurs Murray and Youngs.
Arguably the biggest positive from the mini-adventure in Hong Kong was that no one picked up an injury. It’s something of a minor miracle that the Lions will arrive in Australia with their original squad still intact – a point not lost on Head Doctor James Robson. Tour Captain Sam Warburton was, of course, notable by his absence from the matchday squad and it’s been announced he will sit out this Wednesday’s mid-week game as a precautionary measure to a ‘slight knock’ on the knee picked up in training. It speaks volume of the player that the Lions management do not want to risk aggravating the injury ahead of the test series. That said, he is expected to lead the team out against the Queensland Reds on Saturday. If the worst was to happen to Warburton than the Lions can count themselves extremely fortunate that they have a player as special as Justin Tipuric in their ranks who was again superb against the Baa-baas. A more serious concern, though, is the pre-tour injury to full-back Rob Kearney which was revealed on the weekend to be a grade one tear of the hamstring. If he is beyond repair in the short term then he will be a big loss to a tour party that seems to have gelled so well in their short time together.
So following such an emphatic start to the tour, do the Lions have any concerns going into their first week on Australian soil? Well, the temperament of fly-half Owen Farrell will have been noted by the coaching staff. Yes, he did take a punch to the jaw (from Saracens team mate Schalk Brits) but his ferocity in retaliation would not have been a welcome sight for Warren Gatland who is all too aware that keeping a cool head in the heated atmosphere of international rugby could be the difference between a win and a loss. Words will be spoken I’m sure, and let’s hope they’re said quickly lest the pro-Wilkinson press receive more ammunition in their baseless campaign to get Jonny on the belated plane to Oz.
In the short-term, the Lions face a double-header of matches against Super 15 opposition (namely Western Force and Queensland Reds). Those two matches will tell us a lot more about the standard of this year’s squad and their chances of success. So far though, so good.
One last thing this week which I hope readers will be able to clarify for me…was Steve Walsh within the laws of the game when he reversed his penalty decision after watching a replay of the Brits punch on the big screen inside the Hong Kong Stadium? The decision was correct, but the manner in which it was made seemed a bit dubious to me. Comments welcome below.