British and Irish Lions 2013: Combined Country XV pulled apart by the Lions, but not everyone impresses
Combined Country XV 0 Lions 64
It is an irony of rugby that an awful lot of points tend to be rattled up in pointless matches and there were many in the 20,000 crowd here who, having shelled out good money to watch the Lions on their seventh appearance in Newcastle, spent at least some of their time wondering precisely what it was they had bought with their dollars. A 64-0 scoreline and a try-count of 10-zip? On the face of it, this was less a game than a rabbit shoot. Aim, load, fire.
But there were a couple of aspects to this rather peculiar event - a pampered phalanx of world-class professional players on six-figure salaries taking on a motley crew of part-timers and amateurs with proper jobs, like plumbing and teaching and carpentry - that saved it from descending to the very depths of irrelevance. One was the sheer bravery of the home side. The other was the inability of certain Lions players to assert their superiority over opponents drawn from a completely different place on the union code's evolutionary scale.
For every tourist who seized his opportunity here - Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg, two Scotsmen not expected to play central roles in the Test series against the Wallabies, both enhanced their reputations - there was one who did the opposite. For instance, it will be a big surprise if the Irish scrum-half Conor Murray is now viewed as anything other than the third of the three No 9s in the squad. By the same yardstick, the Welsh lock Ian Evans may have had one quiet outing too many.
Some of the Lions line-out work was deeply flawed and, as a consequence, deeply worrying from the perspective of the head coach Warren Gatland and his fellow think-tankers. If the tourists are fragile on their own throw against the Wallabies, who are always smart in this area, their chances of winning the series will be undermined. Perhaps terminally.
There was not a vast amount to write home about in the scrum, either. Cameron Blades, the Combined Country coach and a Wallaby front-rower of the mid-1990s, seemed more than a little surprised by the way his props handled the chores at the sharp end against Alex Corbisiero, fresh off the plane after being called in as a replacement for the stricken Cian Healy, and Dan Cole, who, at the start of the season, had looked every inch a Test Lion.
"We had four props in our squad who, leaving aside Tim Metcher's couple of minutes for Western Force last week, had never played a higher level of rugby than first-grade club stuff," Blades said afterwards. "To handle things as well as they did against a team of the Lions' class was pretty impressive. I thought they did themselves proud."
At least Corbisiero showed up around the pitch, to the extent that the England prop drew praise from his front-row partner Richard Hibbard, the Welsh hooker who also clattered his way through the rucking and mauling disciplines in a strikingly physical manner that should keep him in the hunt for a Test berth despite his dodgy sense of direction when it came to the throwing duties. "Fair play to him, he was straight off the plane and onto the pitch," Hibbard said of his colleague. "That shows character."
If there were some who predicted a 100-point victory for the tourists, to go with those posted against a pitifully weak Western Australia team in 2001 and an overmatched Manawatu side in New Zealand four years later, it rarely, if ever, looked like materialising. Despite Maitland's excellent contribution, first from full-back and then from the left wing, and some midfield trickery from Hogg, who was the very least of the Lions' problems despite playing out of position at No 10, much of the handling, timing and decision-making was a notch off.
Alarmingly, the second half performance was a whole lot worse than the first-half display, which in itself was far from faultless. The Countrymen's back-row unit of Richard Stanford, Jarrad Butler and Tim Davidson strained every sinew to keep the score down before the break, but for all their efforts - and, indeed, those of the resilient little half-back Michael Snowden - they still turned round six tries to the bad. That they leaked only four after the interval, when rugby logic suggested they would be run clean off their feet, was a minor miracle.
George North was responsible for two of the early touchdowns and no one died of shock when Gatland wrapped him in cotton wool at the break. If there is one player in this party who does not have to fret over his Test place, it is the Northampton-bound wing from Scarlets country. Sadly, precious few others made a similar impact.
The other player withdrawn at half-time was the lock Richie Gray, and his non-appearance for the second period set tongues wagging. Was he injured? Had he shown enough to convince Gatland that he too was worthy of protection from the perils of orthopaedic trauma? With the coach insisting that there were no serious fitness issues arising from the contest, Gray's position is now extremely interesting. At the very least, yesterday was a good day for the tiny Scottish contingent in this party.
All things considered, though, the Lions have had better nights in this country. One of the downsides was Hogg's failure to convert his own try in the 12 minute. At that moment, the 100 per cent goalkicking record lovingly pieced together by Leigh Halfpenny in Perth and Owen Farrell in Brisbane collapsed under its own weight. Oh well. Nothing lasts forever.
Scorers: Combined Country. Lions - Tries: North 2, Cuthbert, Murray, Hogg, Hibbard, O'Driscoll, Halfpenny, O'Brien, Davies. Conversions: Hogg 4, Halfpenny 3.
Combined Country XV: Trist; Gibbon, Catt (Ahwang 61), Siakisini, Cox (McCarthy 55); Roberts, Snowden (McCormack 73); Hirsimaki (Evans 55), Mann-Rae (Kearney 61), Metcher (Abraham 71), Battye (Dyer 50), Enever, Stanford (Battye 64, Arnold 73), Butler, Davidson (capt).
Lions: Maitland; Cuthbert, O'Driscoll (capt), Roberts (Davies 55), North (Halfpenny h-t); Hogg, Murray (Phillips 70); Corbisiero (Grant 50), Hibbard (Best 50), Cole (Stevens 50), Gray (A W Jones h-t), Evans, O'Brien, Tipuric, Heaslip (Faletau 53).
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).
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