Ian Evans: We have to go out fully armed and take our shot
Forget minnow opponents – for several of today's Lions it's their last real chance to impress Gatland and earn Test place
"If it's wet," said an Australian rugby sage as the rain began to descend on one of the industrial hubs of New South Wales, "the Lions will win by 60 points. If it's dry, they'll win by 100." It was not a ruse to lull the tourists into a false sense of security: today's meeting with what amounts to a mishmash of amateur enthusiasts, underpinned by the odd fringe Super 15 professional, is not so much a competitive match as an exercise in ritual slaughter.
The Lions have been nibbled to death by minnows on previous tours – famously, a loss to New Zealand Universities in 1977 resulted in an intensification of training so brutal that the players waded through a river on their way back to their hotel because they were too knackered to walk to the bridge – but it is stretching credulity way past snapping point to imagine that players from teams as unheralded as the Gold Coast Breakers and the Noosa Dolphins can have their evil way with the big fish this time.
If there are some "names" dotted around this Combined Country XV – the extravagantly named lock Phoenix Battye played against the Lions for Western Force last week, while the flanker Jarrad Butler took a shot at them on behalf of the Queensland Reds on Saturday – they are few and far between. Their best-known selection, the Reds back-rower Beau Robinson, comprehensively deselected himself when he ran head-first into the explosively powerful prop Mako Vunipola and went directly to La La Land without passing Go.
Yet this game is not wholly insignificant, for there are several members of the Lions line-up who must put up or shut up today. Ian Evans, the Welsh lock, is among them, as he acknowledged ahead of a light training run at the Hunter Stadium, venue for today's shift in the coal capital of Australia's west coast.
"Any chance you get in a Lions shirt is a big chance," said the Ospreys player, who flirted with anonymity at the wrong time in the victory over Western Force and now faces stiff competition for a Test place from the first-time tourists Geoff Parling of England and Richie Gray of Scotland, as well as a pair of Test Lions in Paul O'Connell of Ireland and Alun Wyn Jones, his regular partner at both club and international level.
"I have to go out there fully armed and take my shot. This is my opportunity."
Jamie Heaslip, the Irish No 8 who played all three Tests for the Lions in South Africa four years ago – and played them pretty damned well – is in a similar position: not because he performed with Evans-like invisibility in Perth six days ago, but because he faces the struggle of his life to stop Toby Faletau of Wales relieving him of the shirt.
"I can't be concerned about things that are outside of my own control," said the Leinster forward, who led Ireland in this year's Six Nations but will find himself being captained by the "daddy" of Emerald Isle rugby, Brian O'Driscoll, on this occasion. "The opposition may be perceived to be weaker than we've faced so far, but I have to go about my job professionally and get my detail right at scrums and line-outs, in defence and in attack. They're the things I can focus on. I can't think too much about the other team.
"With the Lions, every game counts on so many different levels. When you come into the changing room, there's a number there for you: it's tells you what Lion you are. For me, it's 770-something, so you know it's that many people who have worn that red jersey before you. At the end of the day, you have to be able to go back in there and hang the jersey up, knowing you've done a good job.
"It's like playing for your country, but even more elitist, even more rare. These chances don't come around too often and, with a Test match to be played the weekend after this, you understand how important the opportunity is to you. You can't think too much about that Test at this stage, but you can't ignore it either. It's a matter of doing the jersey proud. That's what the coaches want of you."
One player with little obvious expectation of a Test place – the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg – will be in a good many Lions' minds today, for the very good reason that he is charged with playing out of position at No 10. "We want him to be himself," said Andy Farrell, the assistant coach. "He needs to make sure he doesn't confuse himself by trying to facilitate all the time. He has some of the X-factor about him, so he just needs to bring his natural game to the party."
Hogg will have to be terminally confused – and confuse all his colleagues into the bargain – if the Lions are not to win this one by a distance.
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