Date: Saturday, 1st June
Kick-off: 12.30 (GMT+1.00)
Venue: Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
This Saturday sees the beginning of the 2013 British and Irish Lions Tour. Kicking off in Hong Kong against the Barbarians in only their second meeting, the last being in 1977, the Lions look to start on a positive note. While some of have declared the match to be pointless or a waste of time, I don’t see any complaints from any rugby fans or spectators. Given the prestige of both teams it’ll make an enjoyable moment, and hopefully given the Barbarians’ typical style of play – we’ll be in for a treat.
The Barbarians are traditionally renowned for playing an open attacking style of rugby, providing an exciting showcase for the fans to watch. Disappointing at Twickenham, they’ll hope to make more of a showing here with a strong line up featuring some well known names and world class stars. Schalk Brits is a top notch player, pipped by South Africa for his size he’s an extremely skillful footballing hooker and he is entertaining to watch. Aussie Dean Mumm who plies his trade over at Exeter will be looking to get a first glance at what his former teammates are in for over the next couple of weeks, partnering Wasps’ ‘Bok row Marco Wentzel. The back row sees the American Samu Manoa take the place of 6, while Sam Jones is an unknown quantity for the most part, the Wasps England under 20 star will hope to make a name for himself on the big stage. Captain of the side Sergio Parisse is arguably the best number 8 in the world for the past couple of years and he will relish getting to play in this environment. Dimitri Yachvili will step into the scrum half role as he will partner Nick Evans, the Harlequins All Black who will know Owen Farrell from the Aviva Premiership. Munster’s Casey Laulala will partner another young future England international from Wasps in Elliot Daly in the midfield, an exciting prospect that we will only see more of in years to come. Joe Rokocoko will take to the wing as he looks to put his disappointing form at French club Bayonne in the past. He’ll enjoy moving back to the wing where he made himself New Zealand’s second all time top try scorer, as opposed to the fruitless spell he’s had in the centre at the French side. American flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya completes the other wing, while Irish eyes will be on Jared Payne at full back. The Ulster 15 who was primarily a centre before signing for the Irish province will become Irish qualified and may yet play a big role in the Irish set up. With this ahead, it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on at this level. Imanol Harinordoquy will be a great impact sub, the French star has terrorized British and Irish shores for years. Ospreys based Kahn Fotuaili’i will look forward to getting onto the pitch and upping the tempo. The Samoan 9 is, in my opinion, one of if not the best scrum half in world rugby. Jim Hamilton and James Hook will also hope to make an impact springing off the bench, with both of them having staked their claim for a Lions spot but not finding a way to feature in Gatland’s plans. They’ll hope to make him rue the day they weren’t included in his 37 man squad! A bizarre exclusion is Rowan Varty, Hong Kong 7s captain, whom one would have expected to play as a treat to the hometown fans. An injury to Tindall could see him take a place on the bench, and for the occasion, I don’t think anybody could begrudge the Hong Kong captain a role in the game. An impressive line up, this star studded Barbarians squad will hope to gel and mount a challenge towards the Lions team. Given the occasion, the nerves of the Lions could be exposed by the Baa Baas, and they certainly have the talent to exploit opportunities should they take them.
The heat in Hong Kong has been a stumbling block in training all week, as the Lions have released promotional pictures of their players jumping into the pool, sweating with towels on their heads, or cooling themselves down in front of fans. With temperature expected to soar towards 30 degrees, it’ll make it very difficult to maintain such a level of match intensity throughout the 80 minutes. With this in mind, there’s been a decision to introduce water breaks into the game to combat the humid conditions. A quick water break will take place after 15, 30, 55 and 70 minutes respectively. Cooling fans at the side of the pitch and ice vests will also aim to reduce the effects of the excessive temperatures. It’ll make for a rough run out, particularly taking into account the contrasting Irish summer Paul O’Connell and the lads are accustomed to.
Selection for the Lions was not hugely surprising, captain Warburton being ruled out by injury aside I think the team is more or less as expected given that the majority of the players rested/on the bench are just after finishing up their domestic and European seasons with their province/club. The front row is picked on the basis of players available for the most part, with Hibbard and Jones two prime candidates for test starts. O’Connell leads the Lions from the second row partnering Richie Gray, who will be hoping to make a big impact to justify his place on the tour after a poor season. Likewise the returning Dan Lydiate at number 6 will hope to put in a good shift, although given his lack of match fitness I do not envy him as he tries to tackle that heat. Tupiric takes over from his injured compatriot and captain while Faletau completes a Welsh back row. Phillips will don the red shirt of the Lions for his second tour at scrum half. Owen Farrell will hope to erase the thought of Johnny Wilkinson in a red shirt from the minds of spectators and pundits alike as he steps into the pivotal 10 role. The Welsh partnership in the centre will be used to each other and hopefully Jonathan Davies has a new lease of life after a disappointing couple of months. Cuthbert and Maitland make up the wings as imposing, fast and physical threats. Maitland could have a star turn this tour and it’ll be interesting to see how he plays. Stuart Hogg makes up the full back, and eyes will be on him to see how the 20 year old adjusts to the occasion. The bench is extremely strong, made up of three Leinster double winners in Sexton Healy and Heaslip, with George North and Tom Youngs adding pace and presence to the procedure also. Jones, Murray and Stevens, the shock pick of the tour, complete the Lions’ matchday 23.
The key question is – how will the Lions gel? Given that there is such a strong Welsh influence, one would expect there should be a strong element of cohesion already within the side. The backrow unit is all Welsh, and Phillips will work seamlessly for them as he does season in season out. Davies and Roberts will combine together as is their norm. Vunipola will slot into the front row alongside the Welsh 6 Nations winners Hibbard and Jones, so adjustment will be made on his part. The bolter on the tour Vunipola will need to establish himself and prove his worth, hoping to avoid the nightmare he endured at the hands of Toulon recently in the Heineken Cup. Gray and O’Connell make up a new second row partnership which is exciting – the student and the teacher. Despite the past season Gray is still the brightest young lock across the 4 countries with O’Connell being the renowned leader. It’ll be an interesting combination and it’ll hopefully be a big step towards Gray’s future development. Phillips and Farrell could work well, neither play at a particularly high tempo so they could mesh as opposed to clash. The backline mixes Scottish and Welsh but given the skill levels of Hogg and Maitland we could hope to avoid any disaster there. All well in theory, but how well will they mix? Will they step up to the occasion? We won’t know until the game starts.
Both are physical packs and it’s hard to set them apart at the front row. The versatile Paul James is a better scrummager than Vunipola who is more destructive in the loose, however with Castrogivanni and Adam Jones we have two world class tightheads to keep them both under wraps. The scrums look to be solid, with the Baa Baas possibly having the edge. However with Farrell at 10 in contrast to the Barbarians open running style of play, and the heat taken into consideration, we may expect the Lions to merely attempt to beat the Barbarians into submission. However, with the likes of Samu Monoa and Marco Wentzel, the Barbarians will be able to fight back on this physical front and turn into a battle. As a fan and a spectator, hopefully we don’t get this physical front up game. Good conditions, Barbarians and Lions, hopefully we see the ball thrown out amongst the backs and we get an exciting open game.
Key Player – Stuart Hogg
The youngest member of the touring party, Hogg gets the chance to shine at full back ahead of Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney. I think he’ll relish this. Hogg is young, but he’s a class act. He’s a phenomenal broken field runner and the game the Barbarians play will suit him to a tee. Ball in hand, he’s extremely exciting and the Lions Tour is Hogg’s opportunity to really announce himself on the world stage. He has the potential, he has the talent, and it’s down to him to see what he makes of it on this stage.
I’m hoping for a spectacle as opposed to a result either way to be honest. It’s an exciting prospect and a big occasion and hopefully it manages to deliver, despite the heat. The Welsh influence should add to the cohesion on the Lions side, which will take them above the Baa Baas. Whichever team gels better will win. And the Lions should gel better. However, the other question is – will the occasion get to the Lions? A lot of pressure on a young Owen Farrell, and the rest of the team will feel a new sense of pressure donning the famous red jersey. How will they cope? We’ll see. Roll on Saturday.
Verdict – the Lions by 18