10 big questions for the British & Irish Lions to answer
After a farewell dinner at the Royal Courts of Justice, Warren Gatland's squad fly Down Under tomorrow night aiming to do justice to the expectations – and hoping the Wallabies stay in the pub
What's the goal?
Simple: win the Test series. No Lions team have done that since 1997. They lost 2-1 to the Wallabies in 2001 (remember Justin Harrison's late line-out steal?) but beat them 2-1 on the previous visit to Australia, in 1989. The six warm-up matches, which kick off for nakedly commercial reasons in Hong Kong on Saturday, offer opportunities and pitfalls alike as the Lions work on combinations, unit understanding and team spirit. The top Wallabies won't play in those warm-up games, but some unknown Bruce Sheepdip from Wallamaloo will want to make a name for himself.
Time for the team to bond?
Well, the First Test is not until 22 June so yes, even if it all seems messy and rushed right now. Breaking down the national barriers, Sam Warburton has been rooming with Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray with Mike Phillips… and Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien joined a Lions team meal at Heaslip's Dublin restaurant on Tuesday evening. Fifteen of the 37-man squad have been busy in the past fortnight preparing for club finals, leaving just 22 Lions to train together, and it is they, in the main, who will face the Barbarians next week. The first training session for the complete squad is in London tomorrow morning, following tonight's farewell dinner at the Royal Courts of Justice. The Lions fly tomorrow night.
Can they stay fit?
Doubt it. All we want to see are great tries, tackles, scrummage battles and jaw-dropping backs moves, but the sad memory remains of the Second Test in 2009 and red jerseys scattered across the Pretoria pitch. "That was just unacceptable, five people and myself in an ambulance," recalled the Lions doctor, James Robson, now making his sixth tour. The latest Rugby Football Union injury survey shows a club match produces an average of 1.6 injuries per team, with an average 27 days out of action. Four of the Lions never even made it on to the plane four years ago due to a ban for gouging and various broken elbows, ankles and knees. But Australia should be less attritional than South Africa.
So who will be the 38th Man?
The injuries mean someone, somewhere will become an unheralded hero. Rob Andrew in 1989, Martin Johnson in 1993, Martin Corry in 2001, Ryan Jones in 2005 and Tom Croft in 2009 are all asterisked in the annals as "tour replacements" – unburdened by initial expectations, they gatecrashed the Test team. So whose turn will it be this year? Possibly not Toby Flood, England's top fly-half not so long ago, who says he won't bother watching the Lions on telly, but Chris Robshaw, on his holidays in Thailand, may keep his mobile on. Rory Best? Nathan Hines? Ben Morgan? Simon Zebo? Jonny Wilkinson? How about a bolter from head coach Warren Gatland's old club Wasps: Christian Wade or Joe Launchbury, who are both touring Uruguay and Argentina with England next month.
Will the Aussies self-destruct?
Maybe. Like the Lions, they have a New Zealander head coach in Robbie "Dingo" Deans, whose curious attempt at selection by democracy backfired when a sample team picked by undertaking a straw poll of their Super Rugby coaches was leaked. Was it an anti-Deans hand at work or his ruse to share responsibility? Either way, the gloriously unpredictable fly-half Quade Cooper wasn't in the mythical line-up, or in the real squad of 25 Deans has selected to train for the Tests. The great flanker David Pocock is injured. Kurtley Beale is dealing with a drink problem. James O'Connor, a strong candidate for world's best all-round back, could wear the No 10 jersey. But if Cooper can yet prove he has his head screwed on, who knows?
A good Lions team or a great one?
Gatland says: "A good player might do something really good in a game. A great player might do it two or three times in a row." Backs such as O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Jonny Sexton, George North and Leigh Halfpenny fit the latter description. Manu Tuilagi may do. But Owen Farrell has been the opposite of late, doing too much wrong, so the young Saracen, whose dad, Andy, is the Lions' defence coach, badly needs a good start in Hong Kong. Up front, it is seriously exciting to think of Cian Healy, Adam Jones, Paul O'Connell, Warburton and Croft hitting top form together.
Any idea of the gameplan?
For Wasps, Waikato and Wales – Gatland's previous three teams as head coach – read the Lions. Expect a power game, working from one touchline to the other with big backs making dents and forwards running hard to tie the clever Aussie backs into tackle after tackle and keep their forwards doubling back to contest the breakdown, where Warburton and friends need to work their green-and-blue socks off. A blitz defence is likely, while Graham Rowntree as forwards coach faces the test of his life to out-think the Wallabies in scrum and line-out. England struggled last autumn but Rowntree has the component parts to construct a dominant scrum.
First Test – is it win or bust?
Gatland's Wales won the Grand Slam in 2008 but were caught short in their First Test when they toured South Africa that summer, before improving in the second match. Ditto the Lions the following year in the same country when Gatland was forwards coach: their anticipated scrum supremacy was shattered by "Beast" Mtawarira, and in the Lions' misjudgement of tactics and selection lay the seeds of yet another series defeat. There again, the 1989 Lions in Australia lost the First Test but won numbers two and three.
Is the weight of history too heavy?
Legends queuing up to tell us their tales can sometimes be cloyingly overdone (mostly by broadcasters) but there's always room for one more playing of Jim Telfer's "This is your Everest, boys" speech from 1997, and the players' desire to live up to the folklore can be a trump card. Somewhere along the line history has been rewritten to say the first Lions tour was in 1888 (although there were more players from Swinton than Scotland, Wales and Ireland put together), so this year is a 125th anniversary. The name "Lions" was actually first used in 1924. And thank goodness, or we might have been cheering on the BIRUT this summer – they used to travel under the title of the British Isles Rugby Union Team.
What's the prediction then?
If you can find a pundit going for 3-0 to either team, give yourself a cuddly toy. There are too many variables to make a confident bet. The Lions appear to have enough star quality to win but Wales, who provide the most tourists from one nation, have a terrible record against the Australians – Warburton, for one, has faced them seven times and lost the lot. Then you have to factor in a scurrilous Aussie press corps and the Wallabies' familiarity with the Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney tracks. The former Wallaby fly-half Michael Lynagh says: "Our last two Lions series have come down to the last play of the Third Test. I just hope, as an Australian living in London, we win one out of the Ashes and the Lions series. If we get a couple of our players out of the pub we'll be all right."
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