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News & Comment

David Flatman: Never mind the biceps, this Lions team has got real class

From the Front Row: Warren Gatland's Lions show glimpses of magic as momentum gathers for tour of Australia

Yesterday's match in Hong Kong had me worried from the minute it was announced. The Hong Kong climate – such a huge part of the event as it happened – is nothing like what is waiting in Australia, so acclimatisation was not the point. The Barbarians, loose and unstructured by their very definition, were never going to represent the opposition upcoming. And imagine being a Lion and getting injured before even reaching the destination proper. Frankly, it made me shudder, but my worries were misplaced.

Besides the lingering undertone surrounding the relevance of the Baa-Baas in the modern game (they are a glorious and adorable institution, but every 40 or 50-point hammering they receive dilutes their equity), yesterday was indeed a worthwhile exercise. In physical terms it was a most brutal aerobic session, and it offered the likes of Dan Lydiate some priceless game time. It also served to highlight how vital it is to have tried and tested combinations operating within the team. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies were magnificent in the midfield, as were Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones in laying a beastly platform up front.

But the biggest surprise was not that the game was ultimately worth playing, it was the subtlety that came with that undisguised Lions power. Warren Gatland has always favoured a power game and, through his days with both Wasps and Wales, his teams' opposition have rarely been in any doubt as to what to expect come kick-off. What we saw yesterday, though, was a delicacy of touch and a thoughtfulness of line that proved the perfect foil for the crash and barge.

With blokes like Roberts in the side, the Lions will always have route one up their sleeve and, whether it is an obvious play or not, an athlete that big hitting a flat pass flat out is extremely difficult to stop. However, it can be stopped, so to see so early in the tour a level of creativity was deeply encouraging.

High-end goal-kicking aside, Owen Farrell did not have his best evening and perhaps did not manage to utilise this most capable of centre partnerships as well as he might have. But his half-back comrade, Mike Phillips, was absolutely world class, and it was more often his input that led to holes being created.

The attacking lines were, at times, a wonder to behold. We saw Roberts cutting back towards the tail of a line-out at such an angle that he almost seemed to be heading to the changing rooms, but it was so difficult to defend and, more importantly, so unexpected, that it worked beautifully and the half-break was made, bringing with it all the momentum Phillips craves.

That front-foot ball meant that Phillips, through bullocking, angular ball carries, double steps away from the ruck with a delayed pass to come and sheer aggression, shredded the Baa-Baas in a performance that will see his name written in big, red, capital letters on the Aussies' team-room flip chart.

They will, by now, be talking about how to defend him and, really, there is only one way: stop the Lions pack at source. If this objective is not achieved, Phillips could destroy Australia.

If it is, he will have to spend a lot of time shovelling ball but, if that ball can make it anywhere near the outside-centre channel, we saw evidence of some simple but gorgeous technique from Davies and what looked – had that horribly slippery ball gone to hand – like some sumptuous open-field support lines from full-back Stuart Hogg. Many were laughed at when they suggested Hogg should be a Lion, but he is, without question, a very real threat to what most, including me, believe to be Leigh Halfpenny's Test jersey.

This victory will not go down as a classic, but it could one day be looked back upon as the game that gave a classic Lions squad some invaluable early momentum. More than that, in my view it was the game that offered a glimpse of the magic we all so desperately hoped would be bolted on to this most muscular of templates. Never mind the biceps and the brawn, this could well be a Lions tour as it is meant to be, romance and all.

The Lions Down Under

Wednesday v Western Force, Perth

Saturday v Queensland Reds, Brisbane

Tues 11 June v New South Wales/Queensland Country, Newcastle

Sat 15 June v New South Wales Waratahs, Sydney

Tues 18 June v ACT Brumbies, Canberra

Sat 22 June First Test, Brisbane

Tues 25 June v Melbourne Rebels, Melbourne

Sat 29 June Second Test, Melbourne

Sat 6 July Third Test, Sydney