The Barbarians will have to turn in one hell of a performance in 80-degree evening heat to persuade a veritable army of critics that this peculiarly misplaced opening fixture of the British and Irish Lions 125th anniversary tour was not a lot more trouble than it was worth.
At least the Baa-Baas are off the beer. Had they been hitting the bars in this very expensive town over the last few days, they would be flat broke as well as dehydrated.
Not that the Lions have been monks since coming together in dribs and drabs over the last fortnight or so. Andy Farrell, the England assistant coach charged with constructing the tourists’ barricades ahead of the Test series with the Wallabies that starts in Brisbane three weeks today, made no apologies for sanctioning the odd “togetherness” session – a time-honoured tradition still considered to be of practical use in the team-building process, even in this predominantly puritanical age.
But the fun stops here, at least for a while. The Baa-Baas have a reputation to salvage after their limp performance against England at Twickenham six days ago, while the Lions need to lay down a marker, for themselves as much as anyone, before flying to Perth for the start of the tour proper. As Farrell said: “We’re looking for some intensity in this game, even if there’s a running away on the scoreboard towards the end.”
There is no reason why the Barbarians should not make a fist of it, for the first hour at least. Their Twickenham effort was a lot more convincing once the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm and the France scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili were introduced from the bench, and both start today. If they can front up at the set-piece, where they suffered at the hands of Alex Corbisiero last time out, they have natural footballers in sufficient numbers to ask questions of the Lions.
Farrell was certainly wary of the Barbarians in his eve-of-match comments. “They’re not that much of a makeshift team,” he argued. “They could have been on holiday with their families by now. Instead, they chose to play in this game, on this occasion. We’ll certainly be looking to keep our foot on the gas right the way through, because if we’re going to beat the Wallabies in the Test series, it will be all-out effort for 80 minutes each time we meet them.”
According to the coach, the absence of the captain, Sam Warburton, from this opening fixture – the Welshman is struggling with a knee ligament problem – has not had a destabilising effect. “Sam has been heading things up from the start, but Paul O’Connell [the Irish lock who led the Lions in South Africa four years ago and skippers them again today] has been chipping in as well,” said Farrell.
Match officials, led by England’s old friend Steve Walsh, the New Zealander who now referees under the flag of Australia, will allow two water breaks in each half today. The Lions have been training in ice vests and had industrial fans blowing cold air at them from the touchlines. The last thing anyone needs to hear from them after the match is a lot of hot air from the coaches as they attempt to explain away a poor display. The Wallabies will be listening.
Hotting up: How Lions could suffer
The British and Irish Lions are likely to face more difficulty from conditions in Hong Kong than from their opponents:
* Humidity levels in the area have risen past 80 per cent this week due to heavy rain, with temperatures expected to reach a high of 35ºC at kickoff.
* IRB directives state that playing and training should be scheduled when humidity is below 60 per cent, while also suggesting playing in temperatures below 30ºC.
* Previous research has proved players can lose three litres of sweat over the course of a match.
* Each player has been weighed before and after every match to make sure they rehydrate effectively.
Lions S Hogg; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, S Maitland; O Farrell, M Phillips; M Vunipola, R Hibbard, A Jones, R Gray, P O’Connell (capt), D Lydiate, J Tipuric, T Faletau. Replacements T Youngs, C Healy, M Stevens, A W Jones, J Heaslip, C Murray, J Sexton, G North.
Barbarians J Payne; J Rokocoko, E Daly, C Laulala, T Ngwenya; N Evans, D Yachvili; P James, S Brits, M Castrogiovanni, M Wentzel, D Mumm, S Manoa, S Jones, S Parisse (capt). Replacements L Ghiraldini, D Jones, A Lo Cicero, J Hamilton, I Harinordoquy, K Fotuali’i, J Hook, M Tindall or R Varty.