The British and Irish Lions will be given their first taste of Australian hospitality in the far western reaches of this vast country today, and if the taste is not to their liking, they will be expected to close their eyes and swallow before getting on with the job in hand. "That's what the best players do," said Graham Rowntree, the forwards coach, on the eve of the meeting with Western Force. "The hard man is the man who doesn't retaliate."
Rowntree knows all there is to know about the physical perils of touring in the southern hemisphere, where a touch of Pom-bashing is considered de rigueur by the locals. Fifteen years ago in New Zealand, the former England prop went up close and personal with the studs of the All Black lock Ian Jones, one of which pierced his headguard.
"I played in a different era," he said. "All the old stuff about the Lions and their '99 call' in South Africa – that's long gone. What the players think and talk about nowadays is doing the job well, then getting up and doing the next one. Provocation will always be there, but you can't afford to be drawn into things. If we're doing that, we're not performing our tasks elsewhere on the pitch. We can't be standing there getting into fights.
"We're here to play positive rugby, to play our own game – to be competitive and physical within the laws. We'll be very strong with anyone who allows himself to be drawn into any silliness, because you can be banned and miss matches, even miss the rest of the tour, if you get involved."
This clear statement of principle amplified the comments of the head coach Warren Gatland, who, after last weekend's opening tour match with the Barbarians in Hong Kong, said his players should be prepared to "take one for the team" rather than react aggressively to violence or intimidation from opponents. He had just watched his outside-half Owen Farrell respond to a punch from the Baa-Baas hooker Schalk Brits by pushing the aggressor to the floor, and while he did not seek to condemn the young midfielder – "It's pretty hard not to react when somebody lands one on your chin," he remarked – he felt driven to give his squad a public reminder of the need for iron discipline.
Not all the Western Force players see it the same way, apparently. Brett Sheehan, the experienced scrum-half, was quoted earlier in the week as saying he and his colleagues would play an "extremely physical game" against the Lions, adding that there might be ways to "get under their skins". By way of reinforcing the point, the international flanker Matt Hodgson said the Force would be looking to "hurt some bodies", on the grounds that any provincial defeat would be a serious blow to the tourists' confidence ahead of the Test series with the Wallabies.
If Michael Foley, the Western Force head coach, was nowhere near as inflammatory in his pre-match comments, the former Wallaby hooker – as fierce a competitor as the Australian front row has produced in recent memory – did not indicate that his players were about to embrace the philosophy of pacifism. "Our guys play for each other," he said. "That's widely recognised throughout Australia. If you look at how we fight in defence, at what a strong mentality we have…every member of the team sees it as a privilege to be playing in this game, and they'll go hard."
Today's match, together with the fixture against the powerful Queensland Reds in Brisbane at the weekend, should set the tone for the tour. The pace will be immeasurably quicker than anything seen in Hong Kong, while the levels of physicality should rise by a similar degree. According to Rowntree, the coaching team will start thinking about "units and combinations" for the Test series once the Lions leave Brisbane, hopefully intact, on Sunday.
"We're looking forward to this game against the Force," he said. "Although they're not at full strength, there's enough in their line-up to demand respect. The important thing for our players is to take their opportunities as they're presented with them. I think this is an exceptional group of players, and when competition for places is so great, you can quickly find yourself at the back of the queue."
Two of the injured Lions, the three-tour prop Gethin Jenkins and the captain Sam Warburton, are finally on the mend and should be fit in time for the meeting with the Reds. Jenkins trained fully after recovering from a calf problem while Warburton, ruled out of the opening matches by a damaged knee ligament, is expected to do so within the next 24 hours.Reuse content