British and Irish Lions 2013: Why are the Lions (sponsored by HSBC) in Asia anyway?
Lions sick of 'horrific' heat and humidity in Hong Kong as Adam Jones slams 'shocking' conditions in Far East on tour's sponsor-driven leg
The Test series against Australia is still more than three weeks distant, but the British and Irish Lions will face an equally extreme test of a very different kind tomorrow in weather conditions just about as alien to them as it is possible to imagine. Their opening tour game against a strong Barbarians side is expected to be played in 80 degree heat and even higher levels of humidity – a prospect described as "horrific" by the Welsh forward Adam Jones.
"Training here has made me feel sick," the tight-head prop said. "When you're running, it seems OK. When you stop to catch your breath and realise it's not there… that's when it's bad. Our sessions have been a shock to the system, and the locals think the game is going to be played on the warmest day of the year. It can be quite balmy down in Neath on a good day, but this is a bit different. I think the conditions could be more difficult than anything I've experienced in my career."
Forecasters are predicting evening humidity of 87 per cent and while the Barbarians players will feel every bit as uncomfortable as the Lions, it is not they who must fly to Perth the day after the game and embark on a brutally demanding nine-match trek around Wallaby country. If the move to launch this tour in Asia rather than Australia seemed like a good idea at the time, those responsible for the decision are surely having second thoughts now.
While the Lions hierarchy have claimed that opportunities for a further game in Australia were limited – a fragile argument, given that the Wallaby second-string, regular opponents on previous tours, are conspicuous by their absence from this year's fixture list – the impetus came from the banking giant HSBC, the principal backer of the tour. No one seriously believes this game would be taking place here but for the sponsors' historical link with the former colony.
Not that things have quite gone to plan even on the commercial front. The Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po has a capacity of 40,000, but only 26,000 tickets have been sold – a shortfall caused by the reluctance of travelling Lions supporters to add to the cost of a very expensive trip by breaking their journey to Australia. "We are very grateful to the Hong Kong rugby community for supporting this match but there is nothing we can do about the overseas followers," said Trevor Gregory, the chairman of the local union. "At the end of the day, that was out of our control."
There have also been a couple of unfortunate public relations incidents. The saga surrounding the dropping and reinstating of the one Hong Kong player in the Baa-Baas squad, Rowan Varty, led to allegations that the sponsors had influenced selection. Then, there was news of supporters being ousted from a Lions training session because they had no HSBC "affiliation".
For all that, the main issue is meteorological. Four years ago, when the Lions toured South Africa, the players in the opening game in Rustenburg struggled to cope with the effects of altitude. Those participating tomorrow are likely to struggle a whole lot more and there is concern among the conditioning staff that dehydration levels will be off the scale. Anyone asked to "back up" in the first game proper, against Western Force next Wednesday, will find life very challenging indeed.
Yet Jones, who weighs the best part of 20st and was not obviously constructed with the Hong Kong climate in mind, considers this meeting with the Barbarians to be a highlight of his career, even though he has Six Nations Grand Slams and Lions Test caps to his name. "I think it's a massive game," he said. "We're talking about two of the most famous sides in all of rugby and they've met only once before [in 1977, to mark the Queen's silver jubilee]. I wouldn't put it right up there with a Lions Test, but it's special to be involved.
"I'll be propping against Paul James, who I've known since I was 16 and is one my best mates. Apart from one Welsh Schools final, I don't remember us ever coming face to face – not even in training when we were together at Ospreys. How will it go? It's difficult to say, Maybe we'll strike a gentlemen's agreement before the first scrum."
Paul O'Connell's promotion to the leadership role, forced on the Lions coaches by Sam Warburton's struggle with a knee injury, is merely a restoration of the status quo: the Irish lock was skipper in South Africa in 2009 and might even have secured a series victory but for a last-ditch penalty concession in Pretoria.
"Paul is a captain who speaks from the heart," said Jones, who won his first Lions caps on that tour. "He probably gets revved up in the changing room a little more than Sam does and he'll be very effective. Sam is pretty gutted about missing out, but he's switched-on about things and knows what it takes to get himself fit."
Australia's James O'Connor will return from a chest injury to direct the Melbourne Rebels against his main rival for the Wallaby No 10 jersey – the out-of-favour Quade Cooper – in a Super Rugby match against the Queensland Reds tomorrow.
O'Connor, picked by the Australia coach, Robbie Deans, as his favoured fly-half for the Wallabies, has missed the past two Rebels matches with the injury. Cooper, who was fined last year for criticising the Wallabies with his "toxic environment" claim, was not included in Deans' initial 25-man squad for the series, but a further six players are to be added on 11 June.
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