With only a week to go until the first test, everything becomes amplified. The excitement surrounding the games, the importance of putting in a good performance, the crushing disappointment of injury – it all matters more now. The Lions’ penultimate match before the three test series starts sees them face the Waratahs, whose mixed season has left them third on the Australian log.
British and Irish Lions
You get the sense that, in certain positions, Gatland has his test starters in mind already, and it would appear that a lot of them will be featuring this weekend. The pack, in particular, very much has a test-look about it. Mako Vunipola is in such good form that even if Healy and Jenkins were still on the tour, he would have been pushing them all the way for selection. As it is, with only two late call-ups in Corbisiero and Grant to contend with, he is more than likely to start. Alongside him Tom Youngs gets a chance to prove his line-out demons are well and truly behind him and jump ahead of Hibbard, while Adam Jones starts for the first time since Hong Kong.
As ever, the back row will be vital. Much has been made of finding the right balance here, and if the trio of Croft, Warburton and Heaslip can strike that balance, then they could well find themselves on the teamsheet in a week’s time as well. It is an experienced combination, with six Lions test caps between Heaslip and Croft, and of course the Welsh captain in Warburton.
In the backs Phillips and Sexton looks to be Gatland’s preference for the tests at halfback, given that he has shunned the last opportunity to give Youngs a run-out with the Irishman – a great shame, in many people’s opinion. Roberts and Davies continue the Welsh theme, and Roberts could do with a big performance after failing to impress against the Combined Country XV. Out wide Simon Zebo gets his first chance to impress, and if he does so there’s always the possibility he could make a late charge for the test team, given that the other contenders for the shirt (Maitland and Cuthbert) have been good but not great so far.
From the bench Rob Kearney will get his first chance in a 2013 Lions shirt, while Corbisiero will be hoping to make a difference and force himself into the test squad.
One to watch: Alun-Wyn Jones
O’Connell is largely thought to have nailed down one second row spot – who accompanies him is an entirely different matter, however, as no one has really stamped any authority on it. Jones has a great chance to do just that here. He will be up against the ginormous Will Skelton, however, so will have his hands full.
Cheika has taken the Mackenzie selection route rather than that of Foley, selecting the strongest squad available to him. Captain Dave Dennis has been released from the Wallaby squad and starts at number eight, and is joined by the experienced and combative openside Pat McCutcheon. Together they will provide Warburton and co with a stern examination of their breakdown nous.
The other man released by Robbie Deans is centre Rob Horne. Very much a ‘no-nonsense’, direct-running centre, touted as the long term successor in the Waratahs midfield to Nathan Grey, he will make sure the Lions midfield defence has to be at its very best.
There is a man mountain lurking amongst their pack in the shape of Will Skelton, who weighs in at a mammoth 135kg. There are 63 caps in total in the squad, and only one player who hasn’t experienced Super Rugby before – replacement prop Sam Talaki. One thing is for sure – they will provide an infinitely sterner test than most of the games so far.
In the back three there is some serious pace, with Cam Crawford having particularly impressed on his debut season for the Tahs in Super Rugby. He has seven tries already, the third highest total in the league. At fullback Toulon-bound Drew Mitchell will bring plenty of experience, and will know all about the majority of the men he is facing given his involvement with the Wallaby set-up over the past few seasons.
One to watch: Bernard Foley
The Waratahs fly-half was released from Australian sevens duty, which tells you everything you need to know about how dangerous he is in attack. He leads the stats chart this season for try assists and gainline-break assists, as well as coming in third in the line-breaks stakes. He will keep the Lions defence more than honest.
This game is likely to go the way of the Reds game. The Waratahs will be well-drilled, and have tried and tested defensive systems that will not allow another 10 try rout. On paper, the Lions are obviously much stronger, but as a hastily thrown together team there will always be less fluency than a club side that plays together every week. The Lions will keep up their unbeaten record, but there will be no cricket score here. Lions by 16.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43