Lions Tour Begins in Earnest after Commercial Formalities

Lions 59 -v- Barbarians 8

Phillips soars

The Lions Tour to Australia officially kicked off last Saturday in Hong Kong as the Lions comprehensively defeated a lacklustre Barbarians side in a match that fulfilled their commercial obligations en route to Oz. This was as far removed from a Test match as they’ll experience and the real opposition in the Ex-Pat citadel was the weather with temperatures as high as 30 degrees during the game and with unbearable humidity to boot. This was a training session conducted in extreme conditions – think literally the polar opposite of the cryotherapy chambers that the Welsh team have trained in previously under Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland to get some sort of idea of the extremity of it. Now that everyone seems to have come through unscathed and having run in a number tries we can move onto the real business. After the Test series this chapter will either be lauded as great prep or pure madness; only hindsight really knows. Hong Kong was the prelude and with the Lions reaching Perth, the most Westerly city in the Australian continent and home to a booming mining industry, this much anticipated tour Down Under starts in earnest when they meet the Western Force tomorrow. (11am kick off Irish time).

Do not expect this clash to be a classic. Australian club rugby union has galvanised itself in this Lions year with its franchises performing well in the Super 15 season to date. However tomorrow’s opposition are the exception as the Western Force languish in 13th position in Super Rugby. These pre-Test games will highlight the lack of strength in depth in rugby union in Australia. Union is the 4th most popular code played in the country and outside of the rugby strongholds of Sydney and Brisbane the sport is far from well represented amongst the pastimes of the sportiest population in the world. Yet despite the domestic game being in decline the Wallabies have always managed to remain a world force in Union and that is a tribute to the Aussie’s innate sporting capability and the tenacious competitor that is in every player that dons green and gold. Many Australian pundits and coaches plying their trade in wealthier European waters have bemoaned this decline and see the Lions as the last chance for redemption. Their beloved code has been in free-fall and beyond the five Super Rugby franchises the quality is thin in comparison to the other southern hemisphere giants. The Australians simply don’t have a domestic competition to rival the ITM Cup in New Zealand or the Currie Cup in South Africa and these supplement the Super Rugby franchises.

From a Lions perspective Saturday was a decent run out and they emerged unscathed playing some good rugby in the process. O’Connell led the the team out and put in a characteristic display as effort visibly manifested itself into buckets of sweat pouring from every pore. He was the Lions’ first try scorer as he came over the top of a ruck to dot down after continuous pressure. He will only grow in stature throughout this tour.

The Welsh representation are the backbone of Gatland’s 2013 touring party, and for good reason. They showed on Saturday that it will be difficult to usurp those starting jerseys from them before the 1st test in Brisbane on June 22nd. Toby Faleteu defied the conditions to put in a huge carrying performance and lay down a real marker in what will be the closest of battles between himself and the on form Jamie Heaslip for the number 8 jersey; in tennis parlance it’s advantage Toby.  The Welsh centre partnership of Jamie Roberts, who seems possessed whenever he pulls on a Lions shirt, and Johnathon Davies were sharp and combined well throughout the game. Their familiarity with each other is certainly a bonus for Davies but the 2009 partnership of O’Driscoll and Roberts will take some displacing. Mike Philips picked up exactly where he left off in 09. He is so abrasive around the fringes and probes for gaps keeping the opposition defence constantly on edge, he’s a 6ft 2 inch nuisance for any backrow. To win a Test series the Lions’ pack will need to give Philips the go forward ball that he thrives on and allow him to interrogate the Wallaby pillars. This will free up space in the midfield and further out for the Lions behemoths. Philips scored two tries against sheepish Ba-baas defence for the first he fended of the usually immaculate Parisse, who was clearly not as up for this one as he had led people to believe in the build-up. Straight after the half-time interval the feisty scrum-half  left his man rooted as he stepped inside the cover at the back of a line-out and waltzed his way in. That try early in the 2nd half put to bed any notions of this one being a contest and it became a case of how much from then on. Conor Murray is similar to Philips and it’s not a stretch to venture that this is why Gatland gave him the nod. Murray has excelled when presented with any opportunity and although he’ll undoubtedly play a secondary role to Philips he could really come of age Down Under.

Winger Joe Rokocoko provided the only glimpse of the Baas-Baas panache we know and love when he goose-stepped inside and offloaded to Ospreys replacement scrum-half Fotuali’i for the Barbarians only score. It was the end of a long season for many of their players and the heat didn’t help.

The Western Force will certainly play with more heart today. However, with a derby clash against the Waratah’s scheduled for next week the coaching staff have picked a weakened side for the first bout of Aussie hospitality. O’Driscoll, the 4 time Lions veteran, will lead a totally changed starting 15 for Lions. Warren Gatland promised everybody who is fit a start in the first three games and then the selection and combinations will become clearer to all. It’s the turn of the Irish backrow tyros Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip to give a retort to their Welsh counterparts. Johnathon Sexton starts at 10 and he is crucial to this Test series, Farrell simply isn’t the force Sexton is on the gainline. Expect the general to preside over a cricket score.

The General at 10

Lions Team to play Western Force:

L Halfpenny (Wales), T Bowe (Ireland), B O’Driscoll (Ireland, capt), M Tuilagi (England), G North (Wales), J Sexton (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland), C Healy (Ireland), R Best (Ireland), D Cole (England), A Wyn Jones (Wales), I Evans (Wales), T Croft (England), S O’Brien (Ireland), J Heaslip (Ireland),

Replacements: T Youngs (England), M Vunipola (England), M Stevens (England), G Parling (England), T Faletau (Wales), B Youngs (England), O Farrell (England), S Maitland (Scotland).

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