British and Irish Lions 2013: Hong Kong heat treatment will pay dividends against Australia, claims team doctor

The players have complained about the humidity

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The Independent Online

It was the World Cup-winning Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer who once accused an unusually sluggish prop forward of re-inventing the laws of physics by "decelerating from a standing start". The opening game of the first Lions tour of Australia in a dozen years, played in Asia rather than the Antipodes for reasons that made more sense to free-market fundamentalists than to rugby folk, was a little like that: slow at best, stationary at worst.

Yet as the Lions boarded their flight to Perth, thereby signalling the end of the phoney tour and the beginning of the real one, the back-room staff were making confident noises about the potential advantages of spending six days training and playing in what amounted to an oven and left some of the forwards looking as though they'd been boiled in their own sweat.

"We think it's paid off," said Dr James Robson, the chief medic. "If we'd picked up some injuries we might be talking of a different scenario, but we didn't even suffer the levels of cramp I'd expected. I'll need to see the hard evidence, but some of my colleagues believe the time spent here was the equivalent of altitude training. We might see the benefit of it when we reach the first Test in Brisbane."

The Lions certainly outlasted the Barbarians, who buckled to a 59-8 defeat under the pressure applied by Paul O'Connell's excellent pack in the first half and then cracked spectacularly to concede half a dozen tries after the interval, two of them to the ungainly but undeniably effective Wales wing Alex Cuthbert (right).

O'Connell and company will not have it all their own way from here on in – we can rest assured that even the very weakest Australian outfits will play with hostility, a rugby virtue rarely associated with a good-natured festival team like the Baa-Baas – but given the conditions, they could not realistically have asked for more.

There were eye-catching performers in all three rows of the scrum, not least Adam Jones, who reduced the Barbarians set-piece to its component parts. Jones had spoken before kick-off of minimising the effects of the humidity, particularly harsh on those tending towards the endomorphic, by striking a "gentlemen's agreement" with his direct opponent Paul James, a great friend and former Ospreys clubmate. Some gent, some agreement. With friends like the tight-head specialist from the Neath Valley, who needs enemies?

Like O'Connell and the outstanding No 8 Toby Faletau – and, perhaps, the flanker Justin Tipuric, who looked a million dollars in open field when every member of the Baa-Baas team bar the New Zealand wing Joe Rokocoko and the Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i slowed to a standstill in the second half – Jones promises to be one of the Lions' key figures. But he suffered more than most from the heat and will need plenty of quality R and R before he plays again. The coaches must be sorely tempted to give him the week off, run him against New South Wales/Queensland Country XV in Newcastle in eight days' time and then mothball him until the Brisbane Test on 22 June.

Away from the cut-throat areas populated by the cauliflower-faced brigade, the scrum-half Mike Phillips was the obvious winner. In common with Cuthbert he contributed two tries to the tally, but there was far more to his performance than a couple of free runs past slumbering loose forwards – Sergio Parisse, the Italian captain, in the first instance; Sam Jones, the uncapped Englishman, in the second. Phillips brought his usual mix of belligerence and physicality to proceedings, and did it with meaning. In short, he seemed up for it.

Not unreasonably, the head coach Warren Gatland declined to single out players for special praise, preferring to pronounce himself happy with every man jack of them. This was stretching a point. Sean Maitland of Scotland, the New Zealand-born "kilted Kiwi" whose selection for this tour was not widely anticipated, could not conceivably have tried harder to make something happen for himself on the left wing, but his reputation as an error-free back was far from enhanced. Maybe he tried too hard.

As for Owen Farrell, the young England outside-half playing his first game for the Lions a mere 15 months after his first for his country, things were – how shall we put it? – interesting, and not just because he found himself being chinned by Schalk Brits, his fellow Saracen. Farrell's kicking from the tee was sound enough, even though he fluffed one short-range shot he would have expected to land with barely a second's thought, but he was guilty both of the odd wrong option and the occasional technical malfunction. His next start, whenever it comes, will have a whiff of "do or die" about it.

There again, precious few Lions can be completely confident of facing the Wallabies come Test time. While Jones and Phillips put themselves ahead of the game on Saturday, who is to say that Dan Cole and Ben Youngs will not level things up over the course of the next couple of fixtures? Gatland said before departure that strong performances in Hong Kong would put a good deal of heat on those charged with doing a job in Perth on Wednesday, but he is too smart a coach to draw firm conclusions from an 80-minute runaround against opponents cobbled together at the last minute.

Gatland was most interested in, and fearful of, a different kind of heat – real heat – at the weekend, and in the immediate aftermath, he looked suitably relieved. It remains to be seen whether the Lions ever return to these parts: future principal sponsors might want them to play in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur or Timbuktu. Only this much is certain: whatever the coach learnt from events in this part of the world, the hard lessons are still ahead of him.

Arrival in Australia: Lions' next games

Western Force

Wednesday, 11am, Sky Sports 1 Paterson Stadium, Perth

Queensland Reds

Saturday, 10.30am, Sky Sports 1 Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Combined New South Wales/Queensland Country

11 June, 10.30am, Sky Sports 2 Hunter Stadium, Newcastle

Warm-up battles: when it gets feisty before the main event

May 1993, New Zealand

Leicester forward Dean Richards was felled by a punch during the Lions 29-13 victory over North Harbour in Auckland on the second match of the tour. Wade Dooley attempts to protect his fallen team-mate.

June 2001, Australia Martin Johnson squared up to Nick Stiles and Glen Panaho of Queensland during the tourists' 42-8 win, an encounter which also saw Rob Howley punched by Reds hooker Michael Foley.

Ronan O'Gara also came into bother during the last tour of Australia, being on the receiving end of a succession of punches from Waratahs' Duncan McRae during a 24-41 win in Sydney. McRae was sent off and banned for seven weeks.

Lions or Lambs

The players who helped or hurt their chances of Test selection the most

Lions

Alex Cuthbert

His tries were not the greatest he will ever score, but natural finishers do not grow on trees.

Mako Vunipola

Has made big strides: strong at the set-piece, busy around the field. The tour's surprise package?

Justin Tipuric

Competing against the skipper is hard, but his pace and athleticism will be hard to ignore.

Lambs

Sean Maitland

No calamitous errors, but small mistakes added up to leave him less than fulfilled on his debut.

Richard Hibbard

The hooking spot is far from tied down, so he needed to be more eye-catching.

Dan Lydiate

Like Hibbard, he has an almighty scrap on his hands, in his case for the No 6 jersey. Efficient without being startling.

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