British and Irish Lions Tour 2013: Lions vs. NSW Waratahs

Paul MurphyCorrespondent IJune 14, 2013

British and Irish Lions Tour 2013: Lions vs. NSW Waratahs

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    On Tuesday night, the British and Irish Lions wrapped up their fourth win in as many games on their tour of Australia with a 64-0 victory over a team that some sources like have dubbed "the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker XV."

    Though it was an easy victory, the looseness of the second-half display will have disappointed the Lions players and coaches alike.

    After storming to a 38-point lead at the half, the second half was strewn with handling errors and sloppiness at set pieces.

    In the end, the Lions will have been happy to escape injury-free and having been in touch with the history of original Lions tour of 1888.

    The sight of Sam Warburton laying a wreath at the grave of the first-ever Lions skipper, Robert Seddon who died in Newcastle, encapsulated just how deep the history of the Lion is.

The Opposition

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    A recurring theme of this Lions tour has been the sight of the opposition's best players sitting on the sidelines taking in the action, and Saturday will be no different.

    The Waratahs, missing 11 first-teamers to international duty, have named an inexperienced side sprinkled with old heads.

    Michael Cheika is a hard-nosed character who's ruffled a few feathers since his return from Europe, so if nothing else, this team will be dedicated and well-drilled.

    Like the Reds a week ago, the Waratahs have experience in the back row and at halfback to help dictate the tempo.

    Their front five looks very weak, and this is likely an area the Lions will target. Paddy Ryan, the once capped Wallaby, being the sole top-class tight forward in the pack.

    David Dennis is a quality player who will be hoping that a big showing at No. 8 could help him break into the Wallaby back row, and he will be ably assisted by openside Pat McCutcheon.

    At scrum half the terrier-like Brendan McKibbin will be tasked with pulling the strings and getting the best out of exciting young fly-half Bernard Foley, who has been one of the star performers in Super Rugby this season.

    Centres Tom Carter and Rob Horne should be a solid unit defensively and pose a physical threat in attack, but they lack star power.

    The same is true out wide where Drew Mitchell adds some sparkle to an average-looking back three.

    A player to watch coming off the bench is Ben Volavola, who has sparkled off the bench in Super Rugby this season.

Lions to Keep and Eye On

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    Tom Croft

    The English media seem to have pre-ordained that Croft will line up on the blind side for the Lions in the opening test Saturday week, but I, and many other pundits, don't see it that way.

    The back row will be the most hotly contested selection, and if picked on form, Croft would struggle to break into the matchday squad.

    There is no denying his class, and the options he gives to a struggling lineout, but he needs to show some form.

    For me, he is a luxury rather than a necessity and may be better suited off the bench. He needs to get in close and do his share in the trenches.


    Rob Kearney

    It's a testament to the high regard the coaching staff hold the Irishman in that, despite struggling with injury for the past few weeks, the Lions have kept him in camp rather than call up a replacement.

    The form of Leigh Halfpenny makes it a huge ask for him to break into the team for the first test, but there is still one wing spot up for grabs, and a big performance off the bench could see Halfpenny shunted to the wing.

    It's unlikely he'll do enough to change the coaches' minds in the short term, but his form is worth keeping an eye on going forward.


    Tom Youngs

    One look at the pack and it reads like a possible starting unit for the first test next Saturday, with the exception of Youngs.

    Richard Hibbard remains in pole position, but he has had a few issues with his darts. A big showing from Youngs could see him make a late charge.

    There is always one player who comes from nowhere to break into the test team and that could be Youngs this year, if he can find his men out of touch.


    Sam Warburton

    It speaks to the tenuous nature of his place in the test team that Gatland has come out this week and said that Warburton is not a certain starter.

    He looked decent in his one outing against the Reds but looked a bit short of form and fitness. Compared to his rivals, Sean O'Brien and Justin Tipuric, he has looked decidedly average.

    No one doubts the man's class, but such is the competition in the back row that to select him solely on reputation would be foolish. 

Observations on Tuesday Night's Game

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    Brian O'Driscoll

    Does the man know the meaning of the term exhibition? Tuesday's game was basically a exhibition for the Lions, but you couldn't tell that by watching Brian O'Driscoll.

    He was fighting for every ball right to the death and looked like a man who would not accept walking away from this tour defeated.

    He is a certain starter at this stage, adding a touch of class and intelligence to a powerful back line.

    His grubber kick for Davies' try (3.50 of this YouTube video) was pure class and shows, while he's lost a yard of pace, he's still as sharp as anyone upstairs.


    Stuart Hogg

    I wrote last week that Tuesday's game could be the making or the breaking of the talented young Scot. Tasked with playing fly-half for the first time since he was a schoolboy he didn't look out of place at all.

    He stood flat and took the ball at place, distributing the ball and attacking the line with equal aplomb. His play may give the coaches food for thought entering the first test.

    Given how he took to the position, could the Lions opt to use him as cover for Jonny Sexton off the bench or even the the wing?

    It would be a bold move, but it would give the Lions even more options in attack should they need them.


    Set Piece Issues

    Coming into the tour the set piece was supposed to be an area of huge strength for the Lions, both in the scrum and at the lineout. Now with injuries and loss of form, they look vulnerable in both areas.

    Mako Vunipola is a fantastic prospect, but he is not a great scrummager which means, in the likely event he starts, the scrum will not be a means of attack.

    As for the lineout, it's difficult to point to what the problem is. The jumpers all look in great form and are tormenting opposition ball, but they are struggling on their own.

    All three of the hookers have been overthrowing their men way too often, and when they do hit their men, the ball is very scrappy.


    Backrow Conundrum 

    Has a touring party ever had such strength in depth in the backrow. Any three of the eight men available could make the test side without anyone complaining.

    Many people are backing Croft and Warburton, but that seems to be more on reputation than form. If picked on form, one couldn't look much further than O'Brien and Tipuric.

    At the base of the scrum, Jamie Heaslip looks to have pulled ahead of Toby Faletau, but that battle is also too close to call.

    In the end, it will all come down to how the Lions plan to approach the game. They have the luxury of being able to pick horses for courses.

Injury Report

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    While there have been no more departures from the Lions' touring party, the squad is beginning to show the wear and tear of a long season, especially in the back line.

    The main concern at the moment has to be the fitness of George North, the talented young Welshman who has been the star of the tour thus far.

    He tweaked his hamstring on Tuesday, and Gatland must be questioning his decision to use him so often. North has played 193 minutes so far, third most of the touring party.

    The other concern is Manu Tuilagi, who is still recovering from the "stinger" he received against the Reds last weekend. The nature of the injury makes it very hard to put a timescale on his return.

    Both Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell have returned from their knocks but are worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

    Aside from that, we've also seen the last of O'Driscoll until the first test. Gatland has spoken of the need to wrap his older players in cotton wool, and on Tuesday's showing it's easy to see why.

    Since there are so many concerns in the back line, the Lions have called up Billy Twelvetrees, known affectionately as 36, to provide cover in the centres and fly-half.