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Lions Tour: Upping the tempo

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PHUKET: After two relatively straightforward workouts – against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and the Western Force in Perth, the Lions encountered their first real test at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, the setting for the first Test on June 22.

Against the Barbarians, the heat had been enervating, with Welsh prop Adam Jones declaring it “like nothing I have ever encountered before.”

Nonetheless, the team had registered a crushing 59-8 win. The first triumph on Australian soil, against Western Force in Perth, was just as conclusive, with the home team paying the price for fielding an inexperienced side with seven players new to Super 15 experience. The result? A 69 to 17 drubbing.

Queensland Reds, on the other hand, were at full strength, with coach Robert Howley enthusing: “It’s great to see the Reds have selected the strongest side possible.”

Indeed, this game, dubbed the fourth Test by some pundits, was certainly played at a high level of intensity, a bruising encounter which the touring side did well to win 22-12. Not without cost. Having already lost props Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy to injury, the encounter saw the outstanding Ulster wing Tommy Bowe off with a broken finger which may end his tour, and a shoulder injury to possible Test starter Manu Tuilagi.

Having been superior in all departments against the Force, with Halfpenny converting an astonishing eleven out of eleven kicks, and Brian O’Driscoll scoring two trademark tries, the tourists found the Reds a very different kettle of fish.

Playing at a hectic pace, and prompted by Wallaby fly-half discard Quade Cooper, they initially moved the ball better and made more line-breaks, exploiting a perceived lack of pace in the Lions’ backs. But despite a wonderful solo try from winger Luke Morahan, the Reds were second best at scrum, line-out and ruck. Gray and Parling did their test prospects no harm with four stolen line-out balls, and George North, on for the injured Tuilagi, and a certain test selection, created havoc with the ball in hand. Dan Lydiate topped the tackle count with thirteen and Ben Youngs, who scored the only try, had an assured game. Farrell kicked five penalties and apart from a direct kick to touch with a five man overlap, did little wrong.

Captain Warburton, who played the full eighty minutes, made no bones about his ambition to win every game: “There is so much class out there. It is definitely achievable.”

The last “easy” outing of the tour, against a Combined Country Fifteen, saw the Lions win comprehensively by 64 points to nil. The stats tell the story: ten tries without reply and a massive 739 yards gained to the scratch team’s 69. Stuart Hogg, in an unaccustomed role at fly-half, played with flair, and possibly edged ahead of Owen Farrell. Justin Tipuric had a big game at open-side. But the second half display, especially the line-out work, was sloppy: the team needs to concentrate for the full eighty minutes. If players take their foot off the pedal against the Wallabies, they will be punished. Two tough encounters await before the ultimate Test.

The Lions play the Waratahs today (June 15) at 4:30pm, followed by a match against the Brumbies on June 18 also at 4:30pm.

— Patrick Campbell

 

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