Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Warm-up just isn't testing enough for Lions

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11:  Stuart Hogg of the Lions makes a break on his way to score a try during the match between Combined Country and the British & Irish Lions at Hunter Stadium on June 11, 2013 in Newcastle, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: Stuart Hogg of the Lions makes a break on his way to score a try during the match between Combined Country and the British & Irish Lions at Hunter Stadium on June 11, 2013 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Another game, another facile victory en route to the business-proper half of the tour for Warren Gatland's 2013 British & Irish Lions.

To date it has been a canter, a fact borne out by the tourists' record – played four, won four, points for 214, points against 37.

Combined New South Wales and Queensland Country never looked like succeeding where Barbarians, Western Force and Queensland Reds had failed, with this latest mis-match serving only to add to the discontent as to the quality of the opposition the Lions are facing.

The nine-try routs of the Barbarians, who are rugby union's equivalent of basketball's Harlem Globetrotters, and Western Force – dismissed out of hand by a caustic colleague of mine as being "about as dangerous as a team from Parcelforce" – were eclipsed by yesterday's 10 touchdowns in the 64-0 destruction of no-hopers who were condemned to a hefty defeat.

In the aftermath there was a spirited attempt to suggest that, actually, it had been quite a contest after all, the premise for this remarkable conclusion being that the Lions 'only' scored 26 points after the break in comparison to 38 before it.

Is that really to be the yardstick by which we gauge competition in professional sport? And if your reply to that rhetorical question is 'yes', then on the basis that doing one's best in a hopeless situation makes for an acceptable encounter we may as well start throwing gutsy flyweights into the ring to face heavyweights simply because they are game enough to have a go.

Of course, none of this is the fault of the Lions whose sole objective is to beat opposing sides rather than to select them. And if the powers that be in Australian rugby choose to field cannon fodder rather than players capable of providing a genuine challenge, so be it.

But four matches into this 10-date series, the Lions have had only one match worth the name and there is no reason to suspect that the situation on Saturday in Sydney where NSW Waratahs provide the opposition will be any different.

Still, the multi-million-pound show must go on and given that fact it then becomes a matter of finding positives in yesterday's work-out. That is not difficult; there were plenty, albeit that the quality of the Lions' display has to be measured against the patent lack thereof on the part of those clad in yellow and blue.

As a unit, the middle five worked, with flankers Sean O'Brien and Justin Tipuric doing well at six and seven and Jamie Heaslip comfortable at No 8, though given the nature of the opposition he probably would have hoped for more opportunity to run at them ball in hand.

All three are going to be in with a shout come Test time, with the back row the department which will give Gatland real selection headaches, not least because he backed himself onto a ledge in naming Sam Warburton as tour captain. The more I see of Tipuric, the more he impresses me. He would be my seven.

Stuart Hogg, at stand-off, eased doubts about the wisdom of bringing only two 10s to Australia. The third-option fly-half kicked well out of hand and off the tee, as well as showing real pace in helping himself to that try against a non-existent home defence.

Conor Murray looked after the 20-year-old Scot very well, as did the pair outside, namely Jamie Roberts and yesterday's skipper Brian O'Driscoll who was heavy with the pen in underlining his still-remarkable worth. Even now, north of the equator, there is not a 13 in the same class. Some players have flair but little appetite for graft. Others are willing to work but lack craft. But O'Driscoll, at 34, has everything.

Barring injury, George North will start 10 days hence against the Wallabies, ditto Leigh Halfpenny. But a third Welshman, Richard Hibbard, has not quite managed to secure the hooker's jersey, with two wayward line-out throws in the first-half undermining his case.

In the circumstances, Rory Best had an opportunity to put his hand up when he was introduced for the final 30 minutes. Alas, two perfect throws were followed by a ropey third and an off-target fourth before he signed off with a spot-on fifth. However, in fairness to him, the ball became increasingly greasy as the night wore on, witness dropped passes by normally totally-reliable handlers like O'Brien, O'Driscoll and Halfpenny.

At this stage, Hibbard and Tom Youngs remain ahead of Best in the queue for places so he really must make any future game-time count in a very big way. Undoubtedly Paul O'Connell's inclusion would boost Best's confidence – and, as a result, his case – quite considerably.

But the bottom line is that as the fourth-pick hooker promoted to third by default, ultimately it is up to Best himself. On current evidence the line-out is the Lions' weakness so anyone who can help solve that problem is going to be an asset.

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