If there comes a point in every Lions trek when the pre-Test flak begins to fly – and judging by the Lions' body language, these tourists can sense the moment approaching – there is also a time when serious questions are asked about the long-term future of the entire operation. The two have coincided here, thanks to Western Force, the weakest and least fashionable of Australia's professional teams.
When the Force, prepared by two former Bath coaches, Michael Foley and Steve Meehan, take on the Lions today, they will do so at something less than full strength. In fact, they are barely up to half-strength, thanks to the distraction of a Super 15 meeting with the New South Wales Waratahs in four days' time. Foley told this newspaper last month that he would have a difficult time striking a balance between the two fixtures, and so it has proved.
The Force will not be bereft of big hitters against the tourists: Salesi Ma'afu, the Wallaby prop, is no one's idea of a pushover; the back-row unit of Angus Cottrell, Matt Hodgson and Richard Brown is very strong indeed. But in deciding to hold back some of his premium performers for the Waratahs date – the brilliant young centre Kyle Godwin, the senior outside-half Sias Ebersohn and the experienced front-rower Pek Cowan are among this group – Foley gave himself no option but to flesh out his team for the Lions date with fringe players recalled from club rugby in Sydney.
While Foley was keen to defend the selection in public – the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker was at his prickly best in responding to a veiled accusation that he was showing the Lions insufficient respect, pointing out in dark tones that the very notion was disrespectful to his own players – he made it clear that he was deeply unhappy at being embroiled in a situation not of his making.
Both he and Meehan argued that this game should have been played last weekend, when the fielding of a full-strength Western Force side would have been a realistic option. That attractive and entirely sensible solution hit the rocks when the Lions decided, for purely commercial reasons, to launch a tour of Wallaby country in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong, the best part of 4,000 miles from the nearest Antipodean cattle station. Add to that the enlargement of the Super 15 tournament, which, like the universe, is an ever-expanding phenomenon, and something had to give.
Andy Irvine, the Lions manager, is on record as saying that club rugby demands at the back end of a European season are posing a serious threat to the future of British Isles touring in the southern hemisphere, but the host nations are equally responsible for the decay. After the 2009 series in South Africa, the Lions chief executive John Feehan sought guarantees that national coaches would allow their Test players to face the Lions in provincial matches rather than hold them in camp. And what do we find, four years on? The biggest Australian names are in purdah once again.
None of this augurs well for future Lions trips: indeed, it strengthens the suspicion that ultimately they will be forced to abandon old-style touring in favour of bog-standard three-Test series against whichever southern hemisphere power happens to be next on the list. Just at the moment, the Lions still have a special place in rugby union. But if their hosts do not regard them as sufficiently special to give all their best players a taste of the experience, their status will inevitably be eroded.
These thoughts will not be foremost in the mind today, however. Last weekend at the Hong Kong Stadium, the Lions found themselves in the unusual position of being the more cohesive of the two teams, having had the luxury of a fortnight's match-specific preparation. Suddenly, the boot is on the other foot. The Force are a fully professionalised outfit who train and play together over the long stretch of a season. By comparison, this latest Lions combination has been thrown together after a mere handful of sessions.
"That's the way it will be from here on in," said Tom Croft, the England flanker, whose recovery from a serious neck injury that might easily have paralysed him has been one of the feelgood stories of the rugby year. "The only Lions team given the benefit of a two-week build-up is the team for the first game. After that, everything changes match on match, so the best you can hope for is three or four days of preparation as a unit. It's short, it's sharp and it depends on people getting their heads round things really quickly."
Croft starts at blind-side flanker today, a position that will be bitterly contested in the run-up to the first Test in Brisbane a fortnight on Saturday. Interestingly enough, one of the Leicester player's principal rivals, Sean O'Brien of Ireland, will play alongside him in this game, having been asked to fill in on the open-side flank in the absence of the injured tour captain Sam Warburton.
Together with another Irish loose forward, the No 8 Jamie Heaslip, the two flankers can expect a thorough examination from the Force back-rowers. Brown has 23 Wallaby caps in his kitbag, Hodgson has half a dozen and Cottrell is one of the brighter prospects in Australian rugby. The home side also expect their No 1 line-out man, Toby Lynn, to ask questions of the Lions, and will be disappointed if Ma'afu fails to make a better fist of the set-pieces than the Barbarians props managed four days ago.
All things considered, the Lions should win without ever finding themselves in match-saving mode. But equally, they must be on their guard. The last time they visited this city, they ran up a cricket score. The wicket will not be so easy for them this time.
Three to watch: Lions in the spotlight
England do not see the human bowling ball as a realistic option at inside-centre, because of a limited passing range and the absence of a kicking game, but the Lions think differently. Jamie Roberts is red-hot favourite for a Test place, but Tuilagi's freakish power could force him into contention.
The mobile loose-head from Clontarf can land an early blow if he subdues the Wallaby prop Salesi Ma'afu. Mako Vunipola made a strong start in Hong Kong but is still as green as the grass in Test terms, while the experienced Gethin Jenkins has been struggling for fitness.
Versatility is sometimes a disadvantage on Lions tours and as the Irishman can play in all three back-row positions, he could easily suffer from the "make do and mend" syndrome. But he has his chance in the breakaway role against strong opposition today and could complicate the coaches' thinking.
Chris HewettReuse content