British and Irish Lions Tour 2013: Lions vs. Queensland Reds
The British and Irish Lions are finally up and running on Australian shores. After months of talk and speculation, the Lions got the tour underway with a comprehensive 69-17 victory over an understrength Western Force side.
On Saturday they face the first real threat to their supremacy: the Queensland Reds, winners of the 2011 Super Rugby championship.
The coaching staff have once again chosen to mix and match combinations and try players in different roles.
After facing two teams who offered very little in either defence or attack, the Lions will be looking for a proper hit-out against the Reds.
After a few days of talk about how the Australians were disrespecting the Lions, all that talk can finally be put to bed as they face as strong a Reds team as possible.
There are two important figures in the Reds camp who will not be taking this game lightly: coach Ewan McKenzie and enigmatic fly-half Quade Cooper.
He flirted with Ireland during the summer, but neither side was ever really serious about following through on the flirting.
With Robbie Deans' job rumoured to be on the line, McKenzie will be looking to show that, with a vastly inferior team, he can cause some damage to the Lions.
The man tasked with pulling the strings is one of the great enigmas in rugby. Last weekend against the Rebels Cooper was woeful for 40 minutes, gifting them two tries before turning things around and leading the Reds to victory.
He's fallen foul of Deans and, in lots of people's opinion, rightly been dropped from the Test squad. But a big performance here could lead to a clamour for his recall.
Not only would he enjoy getting back in the mix, but he'd also be getting one over Deans in the process.
In Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa they have two strong defensive centres who should make life difficult for the Lions attack, while a back row of Jake Schatz, Beau Robinson and Ed Quirk will make life hard at the breakdown.
Irish rugby fans will be interested to see Ed O'Donoghue in such rarefied air after his abject failure in Ireland.
Players in Need of a Big Performance
Two weeks on the sidelines have placed huge pressure on Warbuton on top of those he already faced as captain.
In his absence both Sean O'Brien and Justin Tipuric have excelled on the openside, while Dan Lydiate was exceptional on the blindside. He will need a huge performance this weekend to fight of the men biting at his ankles.
He should be well-rested so he has no excuse to not come out firing. If not he may have to spend a few more weeks working on his bench-sitting pose.
Less than a month ago Faletau was a shoe in for the Test. He was the form No. 8 during the Six Nations and seemed streets ahead of rival Jamie Heaslip.
But since the end of the Six Nations, Heaslip has been on a rampage. He has made huge yardage in both games he's featured. Faletau will need a similar barnstorming game to stay in the fight.
He has the type of game to thrive on the hard pitches of Australia. He will anchor an all-Welsh back row that should help his quest.
Saturday will be Farrell's last chance to show the coaches he deserves to be in the mix for a Test start.
He and Jonny Sexton have featured so far, with Sexton looking streets ahead of his young rival. Farrell needs to show more variety to his game, standing flatter and varying his passing.
His main selling point was his goal-kicking but Leigh Halfpenny's faultless kicking display against the Western Force pushes Sexton even further ahead.
It is a measure of the form of the men around him that, despite having a fine game against the Barbarians, he needs a big game to stay in contention for the Test team.
The main question mark surrounding Davies has always been his passing. By pushing him inside to 12, manager Warren Gatland is forcing him to show an improvement.
If his passing is up to scratch, he'll stay in the mix. If it's not he'll have little or no chance of beating Brian O'Driscoll or Manu Tuilagi for the 13 shirt.
Observations on Wednesday Night's Game
When you look at the stats of the game, one would be forgiven for thinking Halfpenny kicked a string of easy goals as the Lions ran rampant, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.
A large portions of his kicks came from the touchlines, both left and right, and he sent everyone straight between the posts as if he had the ball on a string.
If he continues to kick in this vein, the Lions will be well on the road to victory.
Aside from his kicking, he was his usual solid self. He was imperious under the high ball and popped up across the back line.
With Rob Kearney struggling, Halfpenny looks set for the No. 15 Test shirt.
Flicking through Jamie Heaslip's Twitter, I saw he posted a picture alluding to a game of hide and seek he'd been playing. Congratulations on your success, Jamie.
You managed to spend close to four years in hiding because I haven't seen this version of Heaslip since the last Lions tour.
He showed glimpses in the closing few weeks of the season but this is the Heaslip that was among the best No. 8s in the world.
He's rampaging through defenders with ball in hand, popping up across the field in great positions and offloading in the tackle.
An in-form Heaslip gives the Lions incredible options in the back row.
In any other Lions tour his average scrummaging would've made him a liability, but the Australians seem to have copied their cousins in Super Rugby and given up on the scrum.
This plays into the Lions' hands in two ways. Firstly their hard-scrummaging pack will soften up the opposition forwards and then Vunipola can be unleashed off the bench to cause carnage.
He's not the fittest, but boy is he powerful. He is also surprisingly skillful, which makes him a great option to spring off the bench.
He won't beat Gareth Jenkins to the Test team but I can see him being used as an impact sub.
Exactly 100 players have appeared for the Lions between the debuts of Brian O'Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi, but that didn't stop them forming a formidable partnership on Wednesday night.
Many seem to be favouring more power in the centre but, for me, O'Driscoll has to start.
He has a fantastic rugby brain and brings real intelligence to a power-heavy back line. He runs fantastic lines off the big men, and though 34, he looks in fantastic shape and enjoying the Tour as if it was his first.
His ability to play off the big men and act as a distributor are unmatched in the Lions' back division. And he won't accept defeat. This is his legacy on the line. O'Driscoll for the 13 shirt.
The rest can argue over who starts inside him.
Cian Healy has two important meetings this morning. The first he passed with flying colours but his trip to the doctor's office revealed an ankle injury that has ruled him out for the tour, according to BBC Sport.
The Lions have wasted no time calling up a replacement, knowing time is off the essence given the distance. They have called up Alex Corbisiero from England's Tour of Argentina, and when he arrives on Saturday Healy's fate will already be known.
While losing a player of Healy's quality is a major loss, Corbisiero will add something different to the Lions squad. He is a powerful, destructive scrummager and is just back from a long layoff, so he should have plenty of miles left in the tank.
In addition, another loosehead prop, Scotland's Ryan Grant, has called in for Gethin Jenkins, who has a calf injury.
In slightly unrelated news the Jonny WIlkinson circus can finally come to an end. He's announced he's undergoing surgery so he will be unavailable for a few weeks.
The only other major injury news to report is the confirmation that Australia's Scott Higginbotham will miss the entire series.
While not a surprise, given the nature of his injury, the Wallabies would've been holding out hope he could return. A formidable ball-carrier, he is the hard man of the Wallabies pack and would've met the power of the Lions head on.