For Lions fans, the wait is almost over. Having touched down in Hong Kong ahead of their opener, the first Lions team of the 2013 series has been announced and the Paul O’Connell captained side contains a good blend of youth and experience. The showdown against the Baa-baa’s on Saturday is likely to be highly entertaining, so as a preview to that game I thought we’d take a look at the side that Warren Gatland has selected.
First of all, here’s the team:
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 14. Alex Cuthbert (Wales) 13. Jon Davies (Wales) 12. Jamie Roberts (Wales) 11. Sean Maitland (Scotland) 10. Owen Farrell (England) 9. Mike Phillips (Wales)
8. Toby Faletau (Wales), 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales), 6. Dan Lydiate (Wales), 5. Paul O’Connell (Ireland), 4. Richie Gray (Scotland), 3. Adam Jones (Wales), 2. Richard Hibbard (Wales), 1. Mako Vunipola (Wales)
Tom Youngs (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Matt Stevens (England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), George North (Wales)
No Dylan Hartley!
The first thing to be said is that there is no Dylan Hartley, as the English hooker was banned for 11 weeks after calling referee Wayne Barnes a ‘cheat’ in the Aviva Premiership final. Consequently Hartley has been replaced in the Lions squad by Irish hooker Rory Best – a man unlucky to miss out during the first selection. I am still bewildered by the stupidity of Hartley’s actions, and his actions have seen him miss out on a very rare opportunity.
Paul O’Connell leads the side
Lions skipper Sam Warburton is sidelined with a knee injury and consequently the coaching team have opted for the experience of Paul O’Connell; the man who led the side in South Africa in 2009. This is a good decision in my book – O’Connell is a fantastic lineout leader and the Lions should secure a good deal of ball from that area.
A large Welsh contingent
Given the fact that the Lions haven’t had too much time together it seems sensible for Warren Gatland to pick 9 Welsh players in the starting lineup as well as 2 on the bench. He’s picked the 12/13/14 trio that lifted the Six Nations trophy and the hope is presumably that their familiarity with one another will help the Lions to hit the ground running in Hong Kong. The concern with the Roberts/Davies centre partnership is the lack of creativity; and given that they are playing outside Owen Farrell and Mike Phillips; the Lions may well struggle to open up the Barbarians.
Gatland has also opted for a Welsh back row, and the prospect of the trio of Faletau, Tipuric and Lydiate playing together is pretty mouthwatering. Tipuric is a pretty epic turnover specialist, and Lydiate’s scything tackles should give him plenty of time to get over the ball and make life hard for the Barbarians.
Another sensible choice is the decision to play fearsome scrummagers Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones together in the front row – this should counteract any fears regarding the Lions scrummaging ability.
Will this be anything like the test team?
Gatland has made it quite clear that he wants to allow all the players the opportunity to stake their own individual claims for a test shirt, but nevertheless it seems unlikely that the test team will look similar to the side that plays on Saturday.
In Mike Phillips and Owen Farrell we could well be seeing the halfback partnership and other likely test starters include Jamie Roberts, Toby Faletau, Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard.
Who’s playing for the Barbarians?
Sergio Parisse captains the side coached by Dai Young and there’s a sprinkling of stardust throughout the side. All Black legend Joe Rokocoko starts on the wing, while speedster Takudzwa Ngwenya starts on the other side. South African hooker/playmaker Schalk Brits starts in the No.2 shirt while metronomic kicker Dimitri Yachvili plays at scrumhalf.
What sort of game should we expect?
Barbarians fixtures are traditionally seen as quite open affairs, and the Baa-baa’s have certainly picked a side to run the ball. The same cannot be said of the Lions, with not much creativity in their backline bar the tricky Scottish pair of Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg. However, given the Welsh centres penchant for running into players rather than round, it remains to be seen if the tricky players will get a chance to get their hands on the ball. For Lions fans though, it will be great just to see the team unveiled and the tour start in earnest.