Tough start - but Lions to face harder games soon

The British and Irish Lions’ tour is really now under way as the Lions managed to come through against Queensland Reds

Brian O'Driscoll, the Lions match captain talks to his team during the British and Irish Lions captain's run
Brian O'Driscoll, the Lions match captain talks to his team during the British and Irish Lions captain's run

The quiet before the storm is over, and the British and Irish Lions’ tour is really now under way.

It certainly felt that way after an enormously competitive and entertaining game against Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday, the Lions managing to come through after a thorough examination.

The previous matches in Hong Kong and Perth had proven to be entertaining spectacles to a degree, but lacked the competitive edge that the Lions really needed to prepare themselves for what is going to come in the Test matches.

Brisbane was a great contest, and the manner in which the Reds started will have made those in the management box sit up, wondering how they were going to get out of this one. To be fair to the Lions they rode that early storm, and their patience was rewarded by a strong finish.

That was a credit to the preparation they had undertaken, and players like Richie Gray in the second-row really confirmed the promise he had shown against the Barbarians. Jonathan Davies in the centre combined effectively with George North, the Youngs brothers both performed well and the English contingent as a whole showed up strongly.

One player not to have put in such a good game was the right-wing Alex Cuthbert.

Unlike some of the others who played with a smile on their face he looked worried to death, while the all-Welsh back-row of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau, as you would expect, demonstrated a nice balance. This is the area where the main competition for places lies, and it is a real strength at the moment.

One cause of concern for the Lions will be the attrition rate of the squad, given the number of injuries and replacements who have been called up. You have got to feel incredibly sorry for the players whose tours have been ended so early – especially Gethin Jenkins, having not played a match in anger.

It is funny how a number of these injuries have resulted in call-ups for players who many were surprised to see omitted from the original squad. People like Simon Zebo and Alex Corbisiero will go well down there, and Lions tours have a habit of allowing guys to fly under the radar before coming to the fore and really staking a claim for the Test series. The notable thing about Saturday was that Queensland picked a strong side, unlike Western Force. This is very important, especially given the concern for the future of the Lions and its relevance in the modern professional game.

I am disappointed they are not playing midweek matches in between the Tests, if I am totally honest.

They have certainly got a big enough squad to do it, and touring has always been about getting out there and spreading the word. That is especially important in Australia given the influence of rugby league and Australian rules football.

From a players’ perspective it means they are not seeing as much of the host nation as they would otherwise have been able to do.

These midweek games give the local population a chance to connect with the Lions, to see them in the flesh, an opportunity that occurs only once every 12 years.

Next up today is a game against the combined New South Wales and Queensland Country XV, and from the Lions’ perspective it is a real chance to maintain the momentum they have generated thus far. That hard edge, playing how they want to play and doing it for 80 minutes, is going to be so important, although not always easy to achieve against the weakest opposition the tourists will face.

Maintaining your intensity in those circumstances can be difficult when people get excited, and try to do too much. A side can easily lose its shape in that situation, and showing the discipline to keep their focus even when winning by a wide margin will be something I am looking for.

One interesting selection for the game has been that of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg at fly-half, having shone at full-back in the early outings.

Jonny Sexton’s apparent hamstring tweak is most likely the reason behind that after receiving treatment on Saturday.

For the Lions’ coach Warren Gatland it is a case of keeping his options open. From Hogg’s perspective it is a massive opportunity, and one of the great things about being on tour.

Being asked to play in an unfamiliar position is a different kind of test, and it is now a question of has he got what it takes to step up to that challenge?

In a competitive environment like the Lions it provides a great chance for a player to make himself indispensable to the group, and Hogg now has that opportunity.

Going back to my own playing days I went on a Lions tour as a second-row forward, never having played in the back-row. In the end I started four Tests as a flanker, so it CAN be done.

What also has to be taken into account during these midweek games is that, pound to a penny, opponents are liable to play way above their fighting weight against the Lions.

That trepidation and fear in what will be, in most cases, the biggest game of their lives, can see performances significantly beyond what one would usually expect.

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