So here we go. The most prestigious invitation teams in world rugby going head to head in one of the most eagerly awaited matches the rugby world has seen – it is hugely exciting for all of us involved but what matters most in the Hong Kong stadium today is that the men in red set the tone.
It is the first game, the first time people are going to see the 2013 Lions as a team and see what we are all about. The performance is very important. We have to be clinical in what we do, ruthless with the Barbarians and come away with a good victory. The weather will dictate how we play to an extent – and more of that in a bit – but for us to set our stall out straight away is all important. We have to live up to the attention.
It is great to be involved in the first game, to wear the famous jersey again, but it is not about me, and that is a vital appreciation for any Lion, or anybody who wants to be a Lion. Ultimately, you are on a Lions tour to win a series for the British and Irish Lions. Yes, there are going to be individual goals on the way – I want to try and get in the Test team and I want to play as well as I can but it is all about gaining momentum as a team. It is not about being selfish on a Lions tour.
From day one back in London when we first got together for the team photo three weeks ago to game one tonight it is about buying into the team ethos, into a squad ethos, making sure we win as a squad. Of course you give your all in games and, hopefully, you play well when your chance comes and you put yourself up for selection for when the Tests come around. But first and foremost it is the team. Whether you are picked in the team or not it is still about the team. If you are not chosen it is down to you on the training field to make sure the XV who have been selected are fully prepared for their match. There are so many people who would love to be where we are. It would be doing them and us a huge injustice to put yourself before what we as a whole are out here to do.
One influence on tonight will be the weather here. The first thing that strikes you when you step off the plane in Hong Kong is the heat and humidity. None of us will have played in conditions like this before and it is very different to what will be waiting for us when we get to Australia next week, let alone to what we have been training in back home.
We had our first training session here on Wednesday – the first time that the entire squad has been out there on the pitch together – and it was 35 degrees and humidity almost 90 per cent. Hopefully, by today we are more used to it and we are being well hydrated and monitored. There will be two water breaks in each half but this is going to be unique conditions for a game of rugby.
There was a good vibe, though, from that first session onwards. It feels good and has built on two weeks of preparation for most of us in Wales and Ireland. The Welsh camp was focused on fitness and conditioning while at Carlton House – Ireland’s training base – we started to implement a lot of our rugby systems, and getting clarity to what everyone is doing for our set plays and so forth. That has been hammered home this week so everyone should be fully prepared come today.
The coaching staff may have a Welsh slant with Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins all around, but there are still plenty of new plans and ideas to soak up. The biggest challenge for any Lions squad is getting everyone up to speed, singing from the same team-sheet, especially the boys who have come in late from Leinster and Leicester and not had that two-week preparation. There is a lot of homework to be done but these guys are all thorough professionals and it will get done.
Owen Farrell and I sat down with Manu Tuilagi when he arrived – that is one of the keys to start with, settling with new team-mates, whether it’s sitting down for 20 minutes and talking it over or out on the training field. You are always learning in rugby, whether you’re playing for club, country or the Lions, and it is important that we are all learning together.
For the Welsh guys, we have to learn how Andy Farrell likes to set his teams up. They may have played plenty of league together but Andy is a bit different in his approach to Sean Edwards. Many of us have been used to the Wales way but to have a player and now coach of Andy’s calibre, the knowledge he can give us from his time in league and union is huge. There is plenty of learning to be done in the next few weeks.
Why Bil the Lion is facing a frighteningly tricky time
There is a learning process off the pitch too, which is important in its own way. We have to get to know each other and room-mates are being moved around to help with that. I’m on my own here in Hong Kong – two into 37 doesn’t go – but shared with Stuart Hogg in Wales and Matt Stevens in Ireland.
Stuart’s got a big job – looking after Bil the Lion. I feel for him a bit but he says he’s up for the responsibility. Everyone is waiting for him to slip up, or looking to make Bil disappear, and when he does the Fines Committee will be waiting. I’m on the music committee with Gethin Jenkins. We take it in turns to provide the music for the bus and gym – in the gym it’s a bit harder house music, on the bus more R&B or soul classics.
It’s all part of the team bonding. In Dublin we all went out for a meal together at Jamie Heaslip’s restaurant – he co-owns it – and had a good laugh. On Wednesday night a few of us went to the races at the famous Happy Valley track. I’m not a regular racegoer, apart from the odd trip to Cheltenham and Aintree, but it’s a good sport to watch and a good event at which to soak up a bit of local atmosphere and colour. The guys are getting along – nobody’s too quiet, there’s lots of noise and buzz around the place – and that has to help when it comes to the serious stuff on the pitch. Starting today.