Lions Tour: Owen Farrell provides sobering reminder of greater tests ahead


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The Independent Online

There had been a lot of talk about alcohol since the Lions arrived in Hong Kong, mainly in connection with a booze ban supposedly self-imposed by the Barbarians. This, we knew from common sense and photographic evidence of a midweek night at the races, was a story that owed more to nice alliteration than strict interpretation of the facts.

The Baa-Baas carried on supping sensible quantities of wine in the build-up; the Lions got on with the main purpose of their Asian stopover – well, the non-commercial one – and had a belting night out, rugby-wise.

They had been this way before – the Lions, that is. In 1971, while taking an overnight rest in Hong Kong en route to New Zealand for one of the mere four tours in 125 years that ended with a series victory, the men in red hammered into the red, white and rosé, not to mention the designated tour tipple of LGT (large gin and tonic). According to the great JPR Williams, he and a few team-mates were late for training the following day. What japes, eh?

These days, all hell would break loose if Owen Farrell were caught leaping into the dentist's chair in the Chinese former colony, although the young England fly-half's muddle-headed, sweaty-handed display in an otherwise authoritative first hit-out for the 2013 Lions was enough to turn a man to drink.

So much has happened so soon for the emotionally out-there Saracen – who is arguably not even the best fly-half at his club, given the presence of Charlie Hodgson, let alone in Britain and Ireland – that you fear he is walking, chin jutting out, heart on his sleeve, into a waiting chasm. Now we understand why there has been talk of Jonny Wilkinson being persuaded to join the tour in Australia as a third fly-half, despite the head coach, Warren Gatland, having previously stated that two was his preferred number.

The Lions by definition are obliged to pick something of a scratch side, so a player needs to be immediately comfortable with the man alongside him. Mike Phillips, at scrum-half, is disinclined at the best of times to feed his No 10 if a more direct route presents itself. Here, with Farrell enduring all manner of scrapes in the early stages, the black-haired Phillips was happy to make his own dents at the coalface.

As surely the first international team to be selected by a fixture computer, with more than a dozen players ruled out by their involvement in last weekend's Premiership and Pro 12 finals, and nudged into where to play by their Hong Kong-connected sponsors, the Lions were not the first to kick off a tour on the wrong continent.

Their 2005 counterparts, heading for New Zealand, began against Argentina in Cardiff. The match, even more weirdly, was given Test status, and the Lions scraped a highly unpromising 25-25 draw, including 20 points kicked by Wilkinson. The 2013 tour will gain proper momentum on Wednesday in Perth, where the 2001 Lions set out with a 116-10 trouncing of Western Australia. Yesterday Sir Ian McGeechan, an über Lion after umpteen tours as centre, coach and now pundit, suggested a 30-point win would be satisfactory, whereas a 60-pointer would indicate the Barbarians' livers had been of the lily variety. The non-playing Lions squad members mingled pitchside at the end with those who had been given the first run and won by 51. For Brian O'Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and the rest, their time will come, soon enough.

The curtain-raiser worked out well, and for that Gatland and friends should raise a thankful beer. But just the one, for now.