With all the waiting and pre-series hype over, four years of preparations and anticipation will come to a head at 11.05 on Saturday morning, when the first Test of the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia finally gets underway.
Six warm-up matches – including a clash with the Barbarians in Hong Kong – have come and gone, along with the Lions unbeaten record which vanished on Tuesday as they were outplayed and outclassed by a well-drilled ACT Brumbies side.
But the side that featured in that match was a far cry to the one that will run out tomorrow morning. Sam Warburton, Brian O’Driscoll and the rest of the first-team squad will return having put their feet up after the impressive triumph over the New South Wales Waratahs last weekend.
They also return with the firepower of George North among the ranks; the hugely influential winger having passed a fitness test on the hamstring injury that had the British Isles quivering in fear that they may head into the Test series without their most potent weapon.
The injuries have taken their toll though. Prop Cian Healy has already flown home, with the Irishman a near certainty for a Test start had he not injured his ankle in the first game on Australian soil. As too his fellow front-rower Gethin Jenkins, who didn’t even play a second of tour rugby before he was joining Healy on the distraught journey home.
Winger Tommy Bowe, who took the 2009 tour to South Africa by storm, suffered a broken hand, though he may just have something to say in the latter stages of the series, along with Manu Tuilagi, despite the Leicester centre seeing just 99 minutes of action due to a shoulder injury so far.
What matters now though is the players that are left standing fit and ready to go to war in the Suncorp Stadium. Alex Corbisiero – called up as cover for Healy – finds himself thrown into the heat of the battle, with the England prop named in the starting line-up ahead of his fellow countryman Mako Vunipola.
Welshman Alun Wyn Jones starts alongside Paul O’Connell in the engine room, while a back-row of Tom Croft, Warburton and Jamie Heaslip should give the Wallabies enough to think about at the breakdown.
The tour captain seems to be recapturing some sort of form with each appearance, though he will need to be at his best to maintain his position with Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric snapping at his heels.
Similarly, the Lions can’t afford to have an out-of-form Warburton among them, as the Wallabies have their own open-side that will pose serious problems around the tackle area. Michael Hooper, who starts due to both David Pocock and George Smith being ruled out of the series with injury, is quite the athlete, and don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency due to his third-choice standing – Hooper will be one of their stand-out players tomorrow regardless of the result.
Perhaps the biggest injury loss in that of crash-ball extraordinaire Jamie Roberts. The inside-centre, who formed such a destructive partnership with O’Driscoll in 2009, will miss at least the first Test as he attempts to recover from a hamstring strain.
His replacement Jonathan Davies has had an excellent tour though, and along with BOD, he will take on the untested combination of Christian Leali’ifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
All these match-ups are exciting, but they are somewhat overshadowed by the clash on the wing. North, so often a game-changer for Wales and the Lions, will meet rugby league convert Israel Folau, the Aussies secret weapon.
Folau has impressed for the ‘Tahs at full-back this season, but he is switched to the wing for his international debut in the 15-man game.
His size, skill and natural ability more than stands-up to North, and the first time either one takes aim at the other, expect fireworks as a bare minimum.
That said, the game is set to be a titanic battle for the full 80 minutes in what is such a crucial game for the eventual outcome of the series. 12 years is a long time to wait, but the Australians still remember that opening loss in 2001– they don’t have any intentions of losing the curtain raiser this time round.
How they line-up:
Australia: Berrick Barnes; Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Digby Ioane; James O’Connor, Will Genia; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander; Kane Douglas, James Horwill (c); Ben Mowen, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu.
Replacements: Saia Faingaa, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Liam Gill, Nick Phipps, Pat McCabe, Kurtley Beale.
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Blues); Alex Cuthbert (Blues), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), George North (Scarlets); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Mike Phillips (Bayonne); Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), Tom Youngs (Leicester), Adam Jones (Ospreys); Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Paul O’Connell (Munster); Tom Croft (Leicester), Sam Warburton (c) (Blues), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Dan Cole (Leicester), Geoff Parling (Leicester), Dan Lydiate (Dragons), Ben Youngs (Leicester), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Sean Maitland (Warriors).