The wait is over. On Saturday in Hong Kong, four years of speculation and build-up comes to an end as the 2013 British and Irish Lions take on the Barbarians. Never mind the negative press surrounding the game this week about empty seats at the stadium and attempts to coerce changes to the Barbarians squad; none of that matters to the players. Tomorrow 23 men will pull on the jersey and know what it feels like to be a Lion. Facing them are a Barbarians team that was comprehensively beaten last weekend by a young and unproven England team, and who now have a rather large point to prove. It is two teams of strangers, effectively, playing against each other, and for all the ‘bonding’ (sober or otherwise) they have been doing this week, fluency might take a while to come.
Reasons to back the Lions
They have had longer in camp. The vast majority of this squad – and the complete starting XV – have been training together for a few weeks now, so there will be a greater level of familiarity with each other than the Barbarians can boast. No Sam Warburton means Paul O’Connell leads the side out, but to have such an experienced man – a former Lions captain, no less – at the helm for the first game can be no bad thing. He will know exactly what to say to calm players’ nerves, and to get them sufficiently psyched up (anyone who has seen any of his dressing room speeches will attest to that).
In the pack Mako Vunipola and Richie Gray are both devastating ball carriers with great hands – one has been in sensational form this season, the other is arguably slightly lucky to have made the tour. Both are outside bets for the tests and will be desperate to lay down a marker for inclusion. In the backs there is some serious pace out wide, with Scottish duo Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland capable of cutting the best defences to ribbons. Much will depend on how good the service is from the men inside them.
What sets the Lions apart from the Barbarians is that they know they have perhaps three chances each to impress the selectors ahead of the tests, and consequently there is no such thing as a warm-up game – every minute of every match counts. As we have seen on previous tours, there are always a couple of players who wouldn’t have been in anyone’s test plans at the start of the tour, but impress so much in the early games they force their way in. It is all to play for for the men in red.
Key Player: Owen Farrell
Farrell has a great chance to prove that he is not just along to play second fiddle to Jonny Sexton. He has shown brief flashes of an ability to play a wider, more expansive game, and if he is truly to challenge the Irishman for the test starting berth then that will have to be to the fore more often. Particularly, as has already been mentioned, with talents the likes of Maitland, Cuthbert and Hogg waiting for service out wide. No one can doubt his commitment and temperament; it is time for him to show he can play with a bit more verve.
Reasons to back the Barbarians
There are some devilishly exciting names in this Barbarians line-up. Jared Payne has had a storming season for Ulster, and any close observers of the Heineken Cup will know how good he is. On the wings Joe Rokococo needs no introducing, while Takudzwa Ngwenya, widely regarded as the fastest man in the full 15-a-side game, has a point to prove after being out-shone by young pretenders Wade and Yarde last weekend. Elliot Daly was electric from fullback against England – perhaps the only man who enhanced his reputation – and shifts to outside centre this weekend where he will look to exploit any space spared him by Jon Davies.
At half-backs Dmitri Yachvili and Nick Evans have all the experience needed to ensure the Baa Baas play in the right areas of the field, while the latter’s duel with Farrell provides an intriguing Premiership subplot. In the pack the duo of Samu Manoa and Sergio Parisse is an mouth-watering combination. If Manoa can smash holes in the Lions’ defence as he does week in week out in the Premiership and Parisse can work some of his magic as the defenders scramble backwards, we could be in for some great tries.
Really, though, it will come down to whether the Baa Baas are well prepared enough to beat a Lions team that have certainly been working hard. There’s no doubt they will give it their all – to spoil the Lions’ opening party is something they would relish.
Key Player: Schalk Brits
The Saracens hooker is fabled for his attacking prowess, but can be a bit lightweight at times in the heavy contact areas. As always, this game will be won up front, and with a pretty big Lions pack coming at them every member of the Barbarians will have to be at their physical best. If he can manage that and still find time to show those dazzling feet and hands he possesses, along with Parisse we could see some superb rugby. If he and his pack don’t front up in the contact areas, however, they simply won’t have the ball to work with.
After such a lacklustre performance last weekend against a young and inexperienced England team, it is tough to see the Barbarians bouncing back against a Lions team that has everything to prove. That said, they have injected some world-class names into their line-up, and will be keen to show that they aren’t just there to make up the numbers. The Lions should be too well-drilled for them, but it won’t be the cricket score many are predicting. Lions by 12.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43