Two games in and the Lions have two wins under their belt. Yet to truly be tested, however, this weekend’s fixture against the Queensland Reds provides a much stiffer challenge for the tourists. The Reds are second on the Australian log in Super Rugby, and aside from their seven players currently on Wallaby duty they have named as strong a team as they possibly can. It is set to be the toughest game for the Lions to date.
British and Irish Lions
Gatland continues to rotate his squad, and as a result we will see some new combos taking shape. The most intriguing is probably, once again, in the centres, where Manu Tuilagi plays his second game in four days alongside Jonathan Davies, who showed some nice touches in Hong Kong. Davies is at 12 and Tuilagi at 13, which intriguingly means Roberts, Tuilagi and Davies will all have started at inside centre after Saturday – is Gatland looking at who is the best man to partner O’Driscoll?
Stuart Hogg gets another chance to impress from fullback, and in better conditions he will hope to dazzle on the counter-attack. At halfback the English duo of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell take to the field, and it will be fascinating how they go in Lions jerseys. The combination has not always worked for England, where Youngs’ sniping runs are not complimented by Farrell’s propensity to sit a bit deeper and dictate play from there. For it to work, Farrell will need to edge flatter – this will get his outside backs into the game more too, and as there is immense try-scoring potential there this can only be a good thing.
In the pack we see for the first time the Grand Slam winning Welsh back-row, who will need to click straight away given the fierce competition in that area. Geoff Parling’s line-out prowess and Richie Gray’s marauding style could be a fascinating combo, while in the front row Gethin Jenkins’ calf strain leaves Mako Vunipola with another chance to impress. It is an extremely mobile pack, which will fit with the open game the Lions have been looking to play so far.
Key man: Sam Warburton
A no-brainer this one. Warburton has had to sit out the opening two games with injury and has seen his rivals for the seven shirt, Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien, put in immensely impressive performances. How he juggles the captaincy and the need to be at his best will be intriguing to watch, especially since the last time he needed a big game (against England in the Six Nations) he turned down the captaincy to focus on his form. He cannot do that this time, and both his leadership and skills need to be exemplary.
The Reds have had an up-and-down season, beating the likes of league-leaders the Chiefs in their backyard, but losing at home to the struggling Western Force. Despite having seven players away on Wallaby duty, there is still an undercurrent of quality in the side and Gatland et al will be excited to see their Lions go up against some strong opposition finally.
Liam Gill’s absence is a huge blow for the Queensland franchise – his battle at the breakdown with Sam Warburton would have been a joy to behold, and would have told us a great deal about where the Lions skipper’s form is at. Much responsibility will fall on his replacement, Beau Robinson.
Will Genia’s brilliance will be sorely missed, but arguably their biggest loss comes in the engine room where both starting locks – Rob Simmons and captain James Horwill – are missing. I wouldn’t claim to know too much of their replacements, Ed O’Donoghue and Adam Wallace-Harrison, but they have a huge job to do to run the line-out and shore up the scrum.
All in all, however, it is a strong Reds team, as 127 Wallaby caps within the squad point to. There is power and pace in equal measure, and in Rod Davies they have a quality finisher. The bench looks strong, too, with stalwart Radike Samo and livewire winger Dom Shipperly to come on as the game wears on.
Key man: Quade Cooper
Another sadly predictable pick, but can anyone else really be called the Reds’ key player when this man is on the pitch? He has been handed the captaincy as well, as if there wasn’t enough riding on this game for him already. With no Genia inside him Cooper’s form often dips, and if the Lions can put him off his game he could get rattled and go missing. If he performs, however, he can change a game single handedly. Such is the nature of the maverick that is Cooper.
This is very unlikely to be another drubbing. There are no uncapped youngsters or local rugby journeymen, just experienced Super Rugby players and plenty of international experience. The Lions, however, have been hugely impressive so far and if the partnerships selected for this game click in the same way the others have so far, they will have too much quality for the Reds. Lions by 15.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43