The British and Irish Lions may have got off to an encouraging start with their 59-8 victory over the Barbarians in Hong Kong, but as they set foot on Australian soil, they will be under no illusions as to the immensity of the challenge that awaits them. First up for the tourists will be a stern test from Western Force, who certainly should not be underestimated, despite their position near the foot of the Super Rugby table.
British and Irish Lions
Very little, in terms of predicting potential test starters, could be garnered from Warren Gatland’s selection against the Barbarians, thanks largely to the exclusion of Leicester, Leinster, and Ulster players from the starting XV, and his selection for the Western Force game will also be subject to that same assessment. All XV starters from the game in Hong Kong have been replaced, with players from those three aforementioned teams featuring heavily, and Gatland looks as if he is keen to fulfil his promise that every tourist, barring injury, would start at least one of the first three games.
A slight cause for concern could be the omission of captain Sam Warburton, who also missed the game against the Barbarians thanks to a knock to his knee. Whilst scare-mongering over the potential severity of this injury is rife at home in the British Isles, the coaches and journalists based out in Australia seem less worried, and it’s simply likely that every precaution is being taken with Warburton, with Gatland not wishing to aggravate the injury in a relatively easier test than those the Lions have ahead of them.
Interesting combinations in the Lions XV include the partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll in the centres, something which fans have been eager to see since the announcement of the Lions squad, and a back row consisting of Tom Croft, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, with none of the three really considered a specialist at the breakdown. The lack of a Sam Warburton or Justin Tipuric will give Gatland the opportunity to examine how these players perform when they have to, at least partly, take on more responsibility at the breakdown, and whether their natural game can also flourish at the same time.
Key Man: Brian O’Driscoll
The wily veteran takes on the captaincy in the absence of Warburton, and will be vital, not just for his playing ability, but also his leadership, as many players taking to the field with him will be making their Lions debut. There is very little left to be said about O’Driscoll’s playing ability, with every rugby fan around the world being well aware of his exceptional talent, but his role as an elder statesman in the team will hopefully help ease any nerves felt by the likes of Tuilagi and George North, who will play inside and outside of him respectively, and ease their introduction to the tour as much as possible.
With the Western Force team looking understrength and containing a high number of youth players, this is a tough analysis to conduct. In terms of individual ability, the Force are a step down from the Barbarians, but this is a team which has been training together all season, and they will likely pose a more efficient defence than the Barbarians, whilst also being more potent and fluent in attack.
There are serious question marks over the strength of the squad the Lions will meet on Wednesday however, as the Western Force have given priority to their Super Rugby match against the Waratahs at the weekend, over the Lions, and have effectively selected a second XV. Considering the Force have already lost the likes of Nick Cummins and Ben McCalman to the Wallabies, the fielding of a further understrength side will likely irk Gatland, who will be keen to see his side tested both physically and mentally by tough opposition.
Key Mann – Sam Norton-Knight
Norton-Knight will relish the chance to play against the Lions, given that many of the players in the team he will have faced during his time with Cardiff Blues. It wasn’t always smooth sailing during his stint in the Northern Hemisphere, but since leaving he has re-found some of the form that made him so coveted by the Blues in the first place. He will be charged with leading a new and young back-line, and much will depend on how well he can gel these guys together.
Given that the Force seem to be giving priority to their upcoming match against the Waratahs in their bid to avoid finishing bottom of the Super Rugby table, I can see the Lions potentially cutting loose in this game, especially with the likes of Croft, Tuilagi, O’Driscoll and Bowe in the XV. Lions by 25.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)