Just over a week away from the first Test with the Wallabies, the Lions hierarchy are thinking ever more deeply about ways of getting their first-choice players up to speed for one of the biggest of all rugby challenges in the face of a fixture list that is doing them no favours. The 64-0 victory over a “side from the bush” was absolutely not what the tourists needed – and Warren Gatland, the head coach, knows it.
The defensive performance of the Combined Country XV, a team featuring fringe professionals and outright amateurs drawn from the major rugby-playing states of Queensland and New South Wales, was better than expected, particularly in the second half: indeed, there were times when they made the Lions look far less than the sum of their parts. But apart from exposing the poor form of a small handful of players, Gatland learnt next to nothing from the occasion.
After the match, he was unusually reluctant to enter into any meaningful discussion of what he had just witnessed. Most of his answers were three or four words long; others were shorter. The coach admitted that some of the Lions’ rugby was “average”, but when asked if the performance had come as a big disappointment to him, he replied: “No, not at all.”
However, Gatland did reiterate, albeit briefly, that the fixture list was light on genuinely competitive build-up games. Much now depends on the former Leinster coach Michael Cheika fielding a strong, well-motivated New South Wales Waratahs team in Sydney this weekend. If the Waratahs, stripped of 10 members of the Wallaby squad currently in camp on the Sunshine Coast, take the path of least resistance in the way a disappointing Western Force side did in Perth a week ago, the Lions will reach the business end of the tour with too little hard rugby behind them.
Brian O’Driscoll, the great Irish centre who led the tourists on Tuesday, felt the Country XV performed as well as could have been expected. “There aren’t that many people who get to play against the Lions, so they were excited about having this chance and they certainly weren’t going to leave anything of themselves out there on the field,” he said. “They hit us with a couple of big impact tackles, which is what you expect at this level of rugby.”
But a “couple of impacts” was not enough for Gatland, even though the coach was pleased that for the first time since setting foot in Australia, his side had negotiated their way through a game without saddling themselves with serious disciplinary or injury issues. Asked whether he thought his side might be undercooked because of the nature of the match schedule, he said: “We’ve been aware of that all along.”
On a positive note, there was good news on the Tommy Bowe front. The Irish wing, a major contributor to the Lions in South Africa four years ago, suffered a fractured hand during last weekend’s full-on encounter with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane – the one serious hit-out the tourists have had to date – and was initially thought to have no chance of playing any further part. But Gatland reported yesterday that Bow might be fit for the second Test in Melbourne on 29 June.
Along with his fellow coaches, he will review footage of yesterday’s game before naming his side for the Waratahs tomorrow. It is Lions orthodoxy that the vast majority of the side for the first Test of a series play together the previous weekend, but according to the Irish flanker Sean O’Brien, who claimed one of his team’s 10 tries, there has been no early sign of that happening here.
“Your guess is as good as mine but I don’t think it will happen,” he said. “Every week you could say ‘this is the Test team’, but it’s all up in the air in every position and we’re just trying to keep our heads down. We know the first Test is coming closer and closer, and it’s exciting. It’s keeping everyone on their toes.”
Luke Morahan, the Queensland wing who scored a blinding solo try in Brisbane at the weekend, has been drafted into the Wallaby squad in place of the Brumbies back Joe Tomane, who has a toe injury. And to think the Lions were hoping they’d seen the last of him…