After the stern examination provided by the Reds, this game is sadly more likely to go the way of the first couple – something of a whitewash. Still, there is a job to be done and the Lions will be keen to do it well. With injuries and niggles beginning to mount in their camp, it is an opportunity for some of those with an outside bet of test inclusion to press their case.
The main talking point is the lack of a recognisable fly-half, with Stuart Hogg, who last played there consistently during his school days, the man tasked with running the back-line. As the youngest man on tour – and having already started two games – it is a huge ask. Still, he has all the basic skills needed to play 10, it is more a question of how quickly he can adapt positionally and tactically to the new role.
Interestingly, Roberts and O’Driscoll – many people’s starting test centre partnership – are to line up outside him. It is perhaps most notable because at this stage – a midweek game under two weeks away from the first test – it is unusual to see the perceived test starters on the teamsheet. We shouldn’t read too much into it, however, and the two of them will be focused on nothing more than recreating the magic that we saw in South Africa in 2009.
George North has nailed down the test left wing berth and gets another chance to show what he can do, with Maitland and Cuthbert completing a sizeable back three. Up front Alex Corbisiero gets his first start in a Lions shirt, an incredible turn of events given his injury struggles this season. Ian Evans and Richie Gray together have to be one of the biggest second row combinations to pull on the famous jersey, while in the back-row it is a two thirds Irish one third Welsh mixture. Sean O’Brien shifts to the blindside – arguably his best position – with Tipuric in the fetching seven role and Heaslip restored at eight after a superb outing against the Force. How O’Brien goes with fewer responsibilities at the breakdown will be fascinating, as it should give him more chance to carry the ball freely and work in the open spaces that he loves.
With Sexton and Farrell both nursing ‘niggles’ neither makes the bench, so fly-half cover comes in the shape of Leigh Halfpenny or Jonathan Davies, although both will likely be praying Hogg comes through the game unscathed. Alongside them Ryan Grant will come off the bench to win his first Lions cap, and it is absolutely no less than he deserves after a stellar season for club and country.
Key man: Stuart Hogg
Impossible to ignore this, really. Playing out of position is tough at the best of times, but to step into the most crucial role on the pitch is a gigantic ask of young Hogg. The opposition shouldn’t be too testing, but nevertheless Hogg will have been working overtime this week on learning the nuances of outside half play. Fingers crossed he goes well.
Combined Country XV
In 2001 the Lions played a Queensland President’s XV and an NSW Country XV – this fixture effectively replaces both of those. There are ten players with Super Rugby experience, while the most experienced man named initially – Beau Robinson – was unfortunately injured at the weekend for the Reds after losing an argument with a rampaging Mako Vunipola.
The front row is where they will struggle most, with just one Super Rugby cap between them. Hooker Josh Mann-Rae has turned out once for the Brumbies this season, having spent an unsuccessful year at the Waratahs and a stint in Japan before that. Alongside him Haydn Hirsimaki and Tim Metcher will have their work cut out to stop an international class front row.
The most experienced man in their team is Rebels no.8 Tim Davidson, who has 39 Super Rugby caps, including five for the Force and seven for the Waratahs. He is part of the leadership group at the Rebels and obviously an important player for them, so will not balk in the face of world-class opposition.
In the engine room young lock Phoenix Battye has been a member of the Western Force’s squad for the past two seasons, and featured against the Lions last week for his province. At over 6’8″ and pushing 19 stone he is certainly not small, and will need to stand up in the face of his mammoth opposite numbers.
Key man: Angus Roberts
Roberts is the man tasked with upsetting opposite number Stuart Hogg. According to the Rebels website he is regarded by the coaches as ‘one of the most natural footballers they have ever seen at the club’, although with a squad that includes Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor it is tough to see how true that can actually be. He has six caps for the franchise.
With the majority of their team never having experienced Super Rugby, it is tough to see the Combined Country XV walking away from this one with anything other than a heavy defeat. Hopefully the tourists’ defence will hold up better than it has thus far, and if they avoid conceding a try they will be happy. Really it just comes down to how big the margin of victory will be – and having already won twice by over 50 points it could be massive. Lions by 70.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43