Belfast Telegraph

Young Lions turn up heat for big games

By Niall Crozier

Told to put down a start-of-tour marker before entering Australia, Warren Gatland’s 2013 British & Irish Lions did exactly what was demanded of them.

 

In Saturday’s Hong Kong Stadium gig which owed more to commercial interests than to rugby considerations, the sultry conditions — 90% humidity — taxed them more than the Barbarians, a collection of outstanding individuals who never really looked like blending as a team against opponents who were playing for Test places rather than a bit of well-rewarded end-of-season craic before heading off for the beach.

One down, nine to go, the hard part starts now and it is improbable that the Lions will underestimate any of those they will face in Australia.

And even if any of the 37 individuals was to fall into that trap, the Lions have motivation in the form of the quality of the opposition within their own ranks. Every jersey is up for grabs, for with each of those who played in Saturday’s 59-8, eight-try romp having set out their stall it now falls on those who have not had the opportunity to impress thus far to state their cases, too.

Already Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip would appear to have a real scrap on his hands if he is to oust Wales No 8, the magnificent Toby Faletau, from claiming a Test place in the middle of the back row.

Those who will get their chance on Wednesday (11am BST) against Western Force in Perth’s re-named Patersons Stadium — formerly the Subiaco Oval — know they had better measure up if they are to queue-jump anybody.

That includes a trio of Irish backs whose CVs are emblazoned with Lions references.

Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe may already possess Been There, Done That T-shirts but this is going to demand huge performances from them.

But Lions cub Stuart Hogg threw a weighty gauntlet in the direction of Kearney, too, for with the Ireland and 2009 Lions Test full-back watching on having been sidelined by the hamstring tightness he suffered during the warm-up for the Leinster-Ulster PRO12 final nine days ago, the 20-year-old Scot certainly made the most of having been handed a start. Gatland has never been a conservative man when it comes to giving youth its fling.

And don’t forget that we have yet to see Welsh wizard Leigh Halfpenny, the Player of the 2013 Six Nations.

Kearney could yet be edged into third place in the pecking order.

Jonathan Davies put it up to O’Driscoll, too. Against the Barbarians, he was outstanding at outside-centre.

Alex Cuthbert bagged a brace of tries from the right wing, so being the only one of the four wide runners not deployed to date, Ulster ace Bowe will face Western Force, with his provincial and national colleague Rory Best guaranteed game-time at hooker, too.

If fit — which actually now seems unlikely — Sean O’Brien will feature in the back row where he will be required to show something very special if he is to present a stronger argument than that presented by Justin Tipuric, currently fancied to understudy tour captain and Welsh team-mate Sam Warburton at seven.

England’s Ben Youngs has yet to make his Lions debut at scrum-half, where Ireland’s Conor Murray did so on Saturday after taking over from Man of the Match, Mike Phillips in the 57th minute.

So the scrap of places come Test time has only just begun. The five matches prior to June 22 in Brisbane will see sweat and blood shed by plenty of Lions desperate for inclusion.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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