There is much talk about the limited value of Lions warm-up games. Mullerings of diverse quality have been minutely dissected or blathered about. This is not only fine, it is the essential accompaniment to the rumble and sometimes tumble of a real, engaging sporting tour. And the Lions adventure is certainly that, enmeshed or driven as it is by the gathering, glorious-daft Sea-of-Redness now showing at a screen near you… and more importantly, in a stadium light years away. Many of us – including, of course, womenfolk with a fondness for oval balls – are hooked, drawn in to the tide of intoxo-enthusiasm, the incrementally searing lust-funk of it all. Swaying or a-swingin’, staggering dad-dancingly but carrying that ball to the gain-line, or into contact or –YESSS – to the TRY-LINE. Being it, being involved because we’re excited and we care and it’s now so real.
Sure there is hype and there are the accoutrements, the merchandise, the £55 shirts, the beery badges of honour. Those of us unable to travel may have indulged in these minor falls from puritanically poi-fect Cliff Morgan-era zeal. Even that’s okay. Because it is feeling real, this huddle of celto-limey brilliance; this us-as-lion. We are gathering, drawn both the lure of a spectacle and surely by some druidic impulse to the standing stones that are the posts – our posts – which we will defend, defiantly together. Against them. Us and Griff and Nana and Reg and Rory and Whitey and Will. Quite possibly lubricated, quite possibly inspired; because this bigness, this generosity is real.
Folks understand. And there’s something of the Baabaa’s about the Lions – there has to be. Beyond the mere assemblage of ‘units’, beyond the gelling of limbs and the reading of calls. The timbre of the thing is different to ordinary international rugby. There’s an onus on those representing to really play. That’s a function of history but one spiced up with a kind of openness (and we hope ambition) to something alarmingly close to poetry and yes – brotherhood. Players are not being glib when they talk about the privilege of the shirt. They are moved as well as motivated by the support – both in the stands and in the blur of distant pubs and clubs and homes. They do know. They are in the moment, even now an attractively underprepared moment, conducive to the sparking up of genius, of glory. It’s special; there is a special joy awaiting as well as a responsibility to be grasped. Lionhood.
So games have been played and cud has been chewed. Chiefly around the diabolical liberties taken by (grrrr!) shackle-dragging selectors of (some say) insultingly under-strength teams. Teasing or taking the piss? Depends on (y)our level of national prejudice, I guess. But I say fear not. Gatland knew what was coming, pretty much. Why else would he have Hogg as a third fly-half? Because he knew a) he would be plenty good enough (for that particular game) b) because the coach can now flirt with option 58b – the possibility that the dashing Scot might come back to haunt or disassemble a retreating Aussie rabble should the Lions either be 2 Tests up or in need of a late burst from an unfeasibly sprightly 10. Thus the coaches too bob and weave, feint and shimmy.
We all know the arguments for ‘meaningful opposition’ but more intense matches may have come at a higher price in terms of injury – to either player or squad confidence. As it happens the Lions must be feeling close to invincible, with backs in particular hungry for another run-in to the line. What players want is the ball in their hands and points on the board. The coaching staff know enough about them as individuals, as players, to be able to select on the basis of skill and character and temperament. It’s in the nature of modern tours that a barrage of more or less distracting psycho-flares be fired up against you; I have every confidence that the Lions as a group have the spine and the spittle to waft this lame but pyrotechnic Aussie nonsense aside.
Much of the fascination at this stage of what I am tempted to call development surrounds Test places – naturally. Plenty of hot air around who deserves this or that as well as laughably heartfelt debate upon who will be actually be in Gatland’s fifteen. Fun to be had in deciphering the clues, following the declaration of the side for Saturday’s game against the Waratahs. Given the approach of the 1st Test, we might expect to see some of the famed ‘necessary units’ to be in place; Phillips/Sexton at half-back? A whiff of authentic grunthood in the front row and a possible lock combo in Alun Wynne-Jones and POC. Inconclusive? May be. Gatland is coming over all wily as well as worldly.
The bankers for a place appear to be Halfpenny, North, O’Driscoll and who? Hogg on t’other flank? With Roberts or Tuilagi at 12? I have always rated Davies at centre for his dynamism and perhaps particularly his opportunism but he seems unlikely now to get a sniff. Phillips and Sexton meanwhile seem sure to start, with Youngs an energetic 60 minute sub. For me both Phillips and Roberts may be a tad fortunate to coast in without showing much of the fire and inspiration of a year or three ago. Such that a Roberts-BOD combo will smack slightly disappointingly of – if not conservatism – an admittedly robust holding operation for the first Test.
The pack against Waratahs – see the team-sheet beneath – is worthy of a Test but delicious or raw spooky possibilities hang. Two weeks ago I thought Hibbard had swashed and buckled his way to a Test start. Now both the mess around line-outs and general questions over the efficiency of Lions set-pieces look to have thrown that one open. Youngs – who plays on Saturday -is a good mix of spirited and focussed. Props-wise Vunipola ticks lots of boxes and Adam Jones ticks all of them – the hairy one will certainly play, the rawer England prop is likely. The locks unit is classy, experienced, courageous, well-balanced but maybe one-paced; meaning I cannot honestly call whether that’s a superior dummy from Gatland or a full-on rehearsal. Richie Gray and Geoff Parling seem almost equally as accomplished and as likely. The back-row looks magnificent, with Croft the supreme athlete and inventor of open space, Warburton hopefully a Captain Marvel in the making and Heaslip a youngish buck with a point to prove. But whether more than one of them will start against the Aussies is another matter.
The back-row thing has got that frisson us fans love going on. Surely Warburton – despite outstanding challenges from within the squad and Gatland’s close appreciation of the Lydiates/Tipurics/Faletaus of this world – will lead, barring injury. O’Brien would bring some Celtic fire and blimey… where does that leave us? With an embarrassment of riches. None of us in our excitement should under-estimate the hike in BIGNESS and EVERYTHING that awaits in the first, crunching Test. Indeed we should relish that prospect – as should the players. Because this is the Lions; we share in it. It remains and indeed thrives ‘midst the hyperbole and the hype. It’s the Lions. Uniquely. And we love it.
Lions v Waratahs.
Backs; Halfpenny, Maitland, Davies, Roberts, Zebo, Sexton, Phillips.
Forwards; Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, AW Jones, O’Connell, Croft, (c) Warburton, Heaslip.
Replacements; Hibbard, Corbisiero, Cole, Parling, Lydiate, B Youngs, Farrell, Kearney.