LIONS 2013: WEEK 1

Well, the 2013 Lions have got off to a great start, thrashing the Barbarians in the first match of the tour, 59-8. It was a very good performance by the Lions, in sweltering conditions (an amazing 95% humidity!).


It was a terrific performance by the Lions, showing great team-work and cohesion, especially for a team that have only been together for less than a week, and considering the conditions. They dominated the ‘Babas’, scoring 8 tries.


There were some stand-out performances: Alex Cuthbert on the wing, Jaimie Roberts at centre, Mike Philips at scrum-half, Toby Faletau at no. 8 and Adam Jones at prop. These players have put down a marker.


Roberts, Phillips and Jones already have Lions test experience (in 2009) and it looks like they will be appearing again in the tests. Cuthbert and Tipuric are carrying on their great form from the 6 Nations.


Other players to do well include Stuart Hogg at full back and Jonathan Davies at centre, showing that they’re going to fight for a test place. Paul O’Connell led well, and Owen Farrell had a good game at out-half.


It was the perfect start for the Lions, with players starting strongly and good team unity, the only dampener been the poor quality of the opposition. The Barbarians side struggled to get a grip on the game and seemed more aversely affected by the conditions.    


The Lions now moved on to Australia, with a match against Western Force, on Wednesday. They should provide tougher opposition than the Barbarians, and the tour really starts here.


Western Force are the weakest of the 5 provincial sides the Lions will face. They are currently 13th on the Super Rugby table, having won only 3 of their matches, with 1 draw and 10 losses.  


(Super Rugby is Southern Hemisphere of the Heineken Cup, with shades of the Rabo12, Top 14 and English Premiership, Teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa competing, 5 from each country, in a round-robin style tournament.)


They are the 2nd newest provincial side in Australia, having been set up in 2006 (the Melbourne Rebels being the newest). The highest they’ve placed in the Super Rugby tournament was 7th, in 2007. Now they hover around the bottom of the table.


Western Force shouldn’t be underestimated, though. They won’t lie down for the Lions, and will see beating them as a great scalp. They’ll be much more of a threat than the Barbarians were, and will capitalise on any Lions weaknesses.


Warran Gatland has picked a strong Lions team for the match on Wednesday (KO 10.30), with a whole new team, meaning that every member of the squad will have featured in a game, with 2 exceptions.


Brian O’Driscoll will captain the side, and there’s a real Irish feel to the team, with 8 players in all. Tommy Bowe is on the wing, Sexton and Murray are at half-back, Heaslip and O’Brien are in the back row, and Best and Healy are in the front row.


O’Driscoll will be joined by Manu Tuilagi in the centre, with Leigh Halfpenny at full back, George North on the wing, Tom Croft at flanker, Ian Evans and Alun-Wyn Jones in the second row and Dan Cole at prop.


Geoff Parling and Ben Youngs are on the bench, while the other substitutes featured in the Barbarians match on Saturday. With the strong performance by players on Saturday, these players will be wanting to play even better.


Jonny Sexton will want to have a great game. Owen Farrell did well against the Barbarians, while Sexton had a difficult time in that match when he came on, missing 3 kicks.


 British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (c), 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 George North, 10 Jonny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip; 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Toby Faletau, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sean Maitland.


The only 2 players yet to feature are Rob Kearney and Sam Warburton. Kearney picked up a knock to the hamstring before the Rabo final and had to cry off, while Warburton suffered a knock to his knee more recently.


Hopefully these players will recover soon (if they recover at all, fingers crossed!) as the longer they’re injured the shorter time they’ll have to stake a claim for the test jersey.


Warburton won’t be the first captain to miss the first games of a Lion tour. Martin Johnson missed the early games on both tours he captained, in 1997 and 2001, though Johnson was more of a test certainty.


Warburton will have a tough time getting a test place, with the back row been the most competitive area in this squad. The sooner he can start the better, with talk of him maybe featuring against Queensland Reds on Saturday.


Kearney’s injury seems the more worrying, with no clue as to when he may start. He’ll be itching to rekindle his 2009 form, where he starred in all 3 tests, and with Stuart Hogg setting the bar, he’ll want all the chances he can get to prove his skill.  


With Lions tours much shorter these days, there’s much more pressure on players that are injured as there’s less time for them to recover and less games for them to feature in and recover form before the tests.


This is in contrast to previous decades, where there were twice the number of matches on a Lions tour, and 3 or 4 months in which to play them. Even players with more serious injuries had a chance to feature.


The most amazing story I’ve heard is about a player called Clem Thomas. He was a flanker from Wales and he featured in the 1955 Lions tour to South Africa (a tour on which Tony O’Reilly starred, having been selected while he was still at Belvedere!)


In the early stages of the tour, Thomas had to have his appendicitis removed so he missed a few games while recovering in hospital. He managed to regain his fitness while working on a farm, and ended up playing in 10 games, including 2 tests.


Thomas would go on to become a journalist and wrote a great book on the Lions called: the History of the British and Irish Lions, one of my favourite books. He died in 1996 and his son Greg has continued updating it to include each subsequent tour.


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