Lions Aim To Hit The Ground Running Against Barbarians

 Lions-2013-33099371,425 days since that third test in Ellis Park, Johannesburg and after months of speculation on selection the waiting is nearly over, the day is nearly upon us. The first warm-up game against the Barbarians kicks off tomorrow in the sweltering heat of Hong Kong. Its put up or shut up time for the Lions party. The players will be glad to see the day arrived and finally get on the field to prove to everyone why they have been selected.  Paul O’ Connell takes over as captain as Sam Warburton has been rested after picking up a knock in training. Expect Warburton to be ready for the Force in Perth on Wednesday night. O’Connell’s selection as stand-in captain won’t surprise anyone having lead the team on a full-time basis four years ago and one thinks everyone in the camp wouldn’t argue either.  Now don’t get me wrong there will be nothing “warm up” about any of the games outside the test matches with every side relishing the chance to cause an upset so Saturday and the rest of the pre-test matches will be hard-hitting, fast and very competitive, exactly what the Lions will want in preparation for the three tests against the Wallabies.

On Saturday, the Lions need to be ruthless and not give the Sergio Parisse led Baa-Baas any foothold in the game. Its now about getting the calls right and finding a blend amongst the players resulting in deciding on their best 15. It’s all about momentum from here on in to the 1st test. The team for Saturday is not surprisingly Welsh heavy with as expected no Leinster, Ulster, Leicester or Northampton players involved from the start. Oh wait that’s right Mr Hartley, Northampton’s only representative, true to form opened his mouth in the premiership final last Saturday speaking words unrepeatable for this article to the referee and eliminated himself from the tour. Such acts have no place on any sporting field. Youngest member of the squad Stuart Hogg gets a chance to shine at full-back, heroic performances are needed from the 20 year old if he is to push himself into reckoning for a test place and the feeling is he will see only mid-week action. Cuthbert and Maitland get early chances on the wing with their direct opposition being George North and Tommy Bowe looking on from the sideline, the two starters from these four will be picked purely on form and Maitland could yet be a bolter with his southern hemisphere experience. Welsh centres Davies and Roberts get the nod as expected. Their familiarity and understanding will be there and no doubt they will form a solid unit but I feel it we are to ruffle Aussie feathers in this area of the field a certain O Driscoll or Tuilagi will be required. Can Roberts and O’Driscoll rediscover the magic and swerve of 4 years ago, watch this space.

Phillips and Farrell occupy the 9/10 slots and should work well together, I can’t see Farrell coming close to Sexton for the test shirt though, with Sexton’s all round game, recent form and ability to break tackles and run the channels making him tailor-made for high intensity southern hemisphere rugby.

Vunipola, Hibbard & Adam Jones make up the from row and will form a solid base for the scrum although Vunipola and at times Hibbard’s inability to cover the ground counting against them, Healy and co will fancy their chances. In my opinion Jones is a shoe-in with hooker and loose-head prop up for grabs. Hibbards darts from the lineout may get him there and expect Dan Cole and Cian Healy to contest the No 1 shirt.

Second Row is the most keenly contested area and all selections could easily slot in now and not look out of place. My player to watch this series Richie Gray gets a chance with the evergreen O’Connell in what looks like commanding pairing.

Finally the all Welsh back-row begins matters with Lydiate, Tipuric and Faletau chosen to tackle the Barbarians and keep Parisse ineffective. Faletau here has a great chance to set down a marker but id expect Heaslip to get 30min to pits his wits against the big Italian too. Heaslip’s current form is excellent back to his best right at the right time and he may beat Toby to the starting place. Warburton looks nailed on if fit to start at 7 but the effective Tipuric could give Gatland a headache. And finally a fit again and favourite of Gatland’s Dan Lydiate starts at 6 to prove his match sharpness after a long spell out injured. If fully fit and showing the form of last year Gatland will stick with his reliable and effective blindside. If not Sean O Brien and Tom Croft will be more than ready.

My guess (for what its worth) on the starting 15 barring injuries for the 1st test is as follows:

Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Roberts, North, Sexton, Phillips, Healy, Hibbard, Jones, Gray, O’Connell, Lydiate, Warburton, Heaslip.

For now let the tour begin and the expected hype to heighten, it only comes around once every four years so saviour and enjoy it, lets hope for entertainment and excited and of course a Lions victory. ROAR

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