As Tom Penistone remarked in his recent article, the Lions are looking good. A ruthless display on Wednesday saw them tear apart a second string Western Force side to record their second 50+ score in a week and the Lions form is likely to send a few alarm bells to the Wallabies, who haven’t been in the greatest of form themselves. Tom asked the question: ‘where is the Wallabies spark going to come from?’, and it’s a particularly pertinent question when thinking about the Lions next opponents.
Reds will present a stern test for the Lions
Although shorn of seven Wallabies squad members, the Reds still have enough quality to give the Lions a real run for their money, and there’s one particular player who will certainly be interested in showcasing his talent – the enigma that is Quade Cooper.
Cooper was omitted from the Wallabies squad for the forthcoming Lions series, and although speculation is rife that he will be a late call-up, as it stands, this will be Cooper’s only opportunity to face the red beast. Cooper is the player that can provide that spark, that ingenuity that can transform a test match from a loss into a win. Cooper could well be playing for his Lions place on Saturday, and ultimately in my opinion, Cooper is the answer to Tom’s question. Cooper is the personification of spark, and without wanting to get too blunt; the Wallabies haven’t got a hope in hell of clinching this series without him. (Check back here on the 6th July and I’ll issue a frank apology if I’m wrong!)
The rest of the Reds squad looks strong too, with Anthony Faingaa and Greg Holmes in the starting lineup and Radike Samo on the bench.
Who’s playing for the Lions?
Here’s the Lions team for Saturday’s game:
15. Hogg (Scotland) 14. Cuthbert (Wales) 13. Tuilagi (England) 12. Davies (Wales) 11. Bowe (Ireland) 10. Farrell (England) 9. B Youngs (England) 1. Jenkins (Wales) 2. T Youngs (England) 3. Stevens (England) 4. Gray (Scotland) 5. Parling (England) 6. Lydiate (Wales) 7. Warburton (Wales) (c) 8. Faletau (Wales)
Replacements: Hibbard (Wales), Vunipola (England), A Jones (Wales), O’Connell (Ireland), Tipuric (Wales), Murray (Ireland), Sexton (Ireland), North (Wales)
The big talking point of the side is that captain Sam Warburton is finally fit and ready to start a game, and he’s got a big job to undertake given the fantastic performances of both Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien in the first two games. He’s being given the very best chance to have a good game with his Wales colleagues Lydiate and Faletau alongside him in the back row.
Elsewhere in the pack we have three first starts for the front row, with Jenkins, Youngs and Stevens all playing from the start for the first time this tour. Given the fact that Cian Healy is likely to miss out on the rest of the tour (either with injury or suspension), the loosehead prop position is very much up for grabs, and Jenkins will be anxious to put in a good performance after Vunipola’s barnstorming displays against the Barbarians and Western Force. Tom Youngs needs a big game if he is to wrestle the 2 shirt off either Hibbard or Rory Best; although the Irishman wobbled considerably with his throwing against the Force, so a test bench spot for Youngs may be a realistic target. To be totally blunt, no-one really knows why Stevens is here – he can play tight-head, but he’s not a good tight-head, and I’ll eat my hat if he makes the starting 15 for the first test.
In the boiler room, no locks have really put their hands up for selection, and this means that Gray and Parling have a fantastic chance to stake their claim for a test spot. It appears more likely that Gray will make the team than Parling, but nevertheless the Englishman’s try on Wednesday indicated that he isn’t just here to make up the numbers.
Another notable selection sees Ben Youngs selected for his first start alongside his England colleague Owen Farrell. Youngs looked very sharp when he came off the bench against Western Force, and offers something different to the brute force of Phillips and Murray. The fact that Youngs offers a quick ball threat could well see him installed as the replacement scrum half, with Mike Phillips name all but inked in on the test jersey. Owen Farrell is given another chance to impress after his shaky start against the Barbarians, but after Sexton’s confident and assured performance against the Force on Wednesday, it seems likely that it will be the Irishman rather than the Englishman who takes the test shirt.
A third game, and a third centre combination, with Jonathan Davies paired alongside Manu Tuilagi. Both men had great games against the Barbarians and Western Force respectively, and the coaching team obviously wants to see an alternative to the Roberts/O’Driscoll axis that many believe will be the test partnership. The one slight issue with this partnership is that they are both 13’s as opposed to 12’s, and whilst he has many other tremendous attributes, you couldn’t genuinely describe Davies as a distributor. This may make it difficult to get the ball wide and get Bowe, Cuthbert and Hogg into the game.
And on we come to the back three. This area of the team is perhaps the most difficult to call, with so many players putting their hands up for test selection. Alex Cuthbert could have been forgiven for thinking that he had a great chance of making the test team after his two tries in Hong Kong, but Tommy Bowe’s performance against Western Force forced another contender into the ring. George North has also played extremely well, but will have been very disappointed not to get a try on Wednesday. Leigh Halfpenny was imperious with the boot on Wednesday and put in a tireless display with his defending and ball carrying, and so Stuart Hogg will need to do something very special indeed to usurp the Welshman. With Halfpenny’s goalkicking so on song, you’d have to be brave or foolish to suggest anyone else for the 15 shirt when we get into the tests.
The first real test
This will be the first real test that the Lions have faced on tour so far, and it will be really interesting to see how they cope with the increased skill and physicality that the Reds are sure to bring to the table. As we’ve seen, there are still so many test shirts to fight for, and so I think we’re likely to see another fantastic spectacle on Saturday, and I for one will be down my local with a cold one, cheering my team on.