British and Irish Lions Tour 2013: Lions vs. Western Force
On Wednesday night, in the most remote city in the world, the 2013 British and Irish Lions will be seeking a first win on Australian soil when they take on the Western Force in Perth.
This will be the first time the sides have met, the Force having only been founded in 2006, but the Lions won 116-10 the last time they played.
After a couple of standout performances against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, the pressure is already mounting for players on the fringe of Test selection.
The Lions will be looking to build on the momentum they gained in Hong Kong, blowing out any remaining cobwebs and remaining injury-free.
Coming right in the middle of the Super Rugby season (the Force play the Waratahs on Sunday), one can see why Bernard Foley has rested a few of his big guns.
Though they lie bottom of the Australian conference with just three wins in 14, they are a tough nut to crack (only the Brumbies have managed to beat them by more than 10 points). They also raise their performances for the big games, having beaten the Queensland Reds and the Crusaders already this year.
While they players will be unfamiliar to most, this is their Everest. A once-in-a-lifetime shot at the Lions and they have nothing to lose. Just look at how an under-strength Munster side ran the All Blacks close in 2008 and beat the Wallabies in 2008 for an example of what could happen.
They have experience in key positions; Brett Sheehan and Sam Norton-Knight in the halves, Richard Brown and Matt Hodgson in the back row and Salesi Ma'afu at prop. The Force will be hoping this experience will be enough to keep the game close.
As for the host of unknowns in the side, anything could happen. The Force's academy has produced a slew of stars in recent years such as David Pocock, James O'Connor and current hotshot Kyle Godwin.
One thing I will miss is an appearance from the original Honey Badger, Nick Cummins. His post match interviews are pure gold.
Players Who Need to Step Up for the Lions
Coming into the Tour he was seen as Mike Phillips' main competition for the No. 9 shirt, but Youngs' hopes will have taken a dive during the week as both Phillips and Conor Murray put on a good show in Hong Kong. Murray fits the bill of how the Lions will look to play so Youngs will need to show he offers something different off the bench. He will need to make a big impact when he finally gets his chance to oust Murray.
With George North seen as a shoe-in on one wing, Sean Maitland's poor game in Hong Kong appears to have made the race for the other wing a two-horse race between Bowe and Alex Cuthbert. The Welshman took his chances against the Barbarians, scoring two tries, so Bowe will need to lay down a similar marker. Expect him to pop up across the back line.
Irrepressible on his day, Tuilagi is facing a mountain to make the test side, a man-mountain that is, in the form of Jamie Roberts. All indicators point to the Lions eyeing up the more rounded Brian O'Driscoll and Jonathan Davies at 13 to add a dash of creativity to a powerful back division.
Playing two straight-running centres with a tendency to rush up in defence could be dangerous, so Tuilagi will need to show his worth at 12. Warren Gatland will be playing close attention to his passing and ability to offload in the tackle.
Sean O'Brien/Tom Croft
The most hotly contested position coming into the tour was the back row and the battle has only intensified since departure. Sam Warburton, as skipper, surely has a leg up on his rivals, while both Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric were exceptional in Hong Kong.
If Croft or O'Brien have any aspirations to make the Test side, they need to lay down a marker straight away. Croft will do his usual job of hanging out wide exploiting space, while O'Brien will be looking to do his damage in close.
Observations on Last Weekend's Action
With each passing day the decision to take only two fly-halves on tour is looking a poor one. The more I see of Farrell the more I think he hails from the Chris Ashton/Dylan Hartley/James Haskell side of the English dressing room than the Chris Robshaw one. He repeatedly gets himself wound up and drawn into off-the-ball incidents.
He will have a target on his back now and everyone knows how the Aussies love a good sledge. And then there's his game. He's a fantastic place kicker but limited everywhere else. His passing was awful in Hong Kong, leading to the Barbarians try (3.14) and it was the scrum-halves controlling proceedings.
Jonny Sexton showed what a good fly-half he was in the build-up to Alun Wyn-Jones' try (5.52) I would hazard a guess that, should a player have to return from the Tour injured, he will be replaced by a fly-half regardless of position.
While Farrell's stock goes on, Tipuric's is on the rise. He is a classic breakaway openside who is made for the hard grounds of the subcontinent. His positioning is fantastic, always appearing on the shoulder of ball-carriers just when he's needed and is more than capable scavenger.
His form is putting Sam Warburton's position under serious threat. With Lydiate doing the donkey work on the blindside, Tipuric was freed to focus on his strengths. When Warburton returns he will need to hit the ground running or risk being shunted to the blindside, if not the bench.
Two months before the squad was named, O'Connell's chances were in the gutter, now he's looking more and more like a certain starter. He has energy to burn after his long spell on the sidelines and looks to be getting fitter and fitter each week.
With Warburton's position in the side under threat could O'Connell earn a chance to lead the Lions onto the field of battle for a fourth time? Even if he doesn't, you can tell he has assumed a leadership role within the squad. Where Warburton is a player who leads by example, O'Connell is very much fire and brimstone.
I'm not sure if it just an off night or the pressure got to him, but Maitland had an awful game last weekend. I've long said he brings a different dimension to the Lions' wing corps but none of his skills were evident. Already a long-shot before the Tour began, he seems destined to spend the majority of it with the second unit.
Thus far the Lions have been blessed when it comes to injuries. None of the original squad named had to cry off sick and they have escaped the first few weeks of intense training relatively unscathed.
Sam Warburton has been given the all clear, while Gethin Jenkins has resumed full training after a recurrence of a calf injury. The only serious concern is for Rob Kearney, who has a small hamstring tear. The Lions are waiting to see how he responds but he could be the first injury casualty of the 2013 tour.
One need only look at how the Wallabies are faring injury-wise to see how lucky the Lions have been. Not only are the Aussies' players dropping like flies but it's their stars who are succumbing to injury.
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