Queensland are to rugby in Australia what Munster are to the game here. Tough, uncompromising and with a rich history against international touring sides, the Lions will be tested, especially as the team selected by Warren Gatland today looks the least formidable of the three that will have faced action on this tour.
With Suncorp, the traditional home of the Reds’ famed rugby league side, full to it’s 55,000 capacity, it will also add to the occasion. The fact that it is also the venue for the crucial opening test in a fortnight will help to focus the minds of the tourists who have been offered a dry run in advance of that key date.
While the Reds are short seven Wallabies including James Horwill, Will Genia, Rob Simmons and Digby Ioane who are already in camp with Australia, with nine other internationals in their starting line up, they are sure to offer a bit more sustained resistance than the Western Force did in Perth last Wednesday.
The presence of the gifted but erratic Quade Cooper at out-half, who must seize this last chance for a Wallaby squad recall, also adds to the intrigue.
The side put out by the Force coach Michael Foley in Perth was not only farcical but bordered on disrespectful. Rugby union in Australia is under intense pressure from the other professional codes when it comes to attracting bums on seats and corporate sponsorship. Rugby League and Aussie Rules enjoy a marked advantage in a number of states and the Australian public have been less than impressed by the performances of their respective union sides in recent seasons.
For that reason alone, it was incumbent on Foley to name his strongest combination. Holding back up to nine regular starters because they face the Waratahs in a dead rubber of a Super 15 game, a contest that has no impact on their current league standing, made no sense. It makes you wonder if the Wallabies management encouraged such a stance in order to compromise the Lions preparatory work prior to the tests. I wouldn’t put it past them.
By omitting several promising young Wallabies in waiting, it deprived a number of their players of a once in a lifetime opportunity that would have accelerated their development.
The Lions must also take some culpability in that the Force game was originally scheduled as the opening game of the tour last Saturday until the commercial wheel of the Lions armoury pushed for that junket in Hong Kong as a means of generating much needed additional revenue for the four home unions.
That said, Robbie Deans’ assertion that he wanted the provincial sides playing the Lions in the games leading up to the first test to tear them limb from limb, rang a bit hollow.
That Force side packed little or no punch. Physically they were the equivalent of getting a kick from a chicken.
The Aussies aren’t the only ones playing silly buggers at the moment however. Gatland has shown very little from a set-piece situation with the vast majority of his lineout ploys restricted to throwing to the tail. They have rarely involved their second row pairings out of touch and their maul, which is certain to play a big role in the test series, has been used sparingly. Unfortunately by favouring the tail of the lineout, a more difficult delivery to perfect, Rory Best’s recent throwing blips were highlighted once again.
As a consequence Richard Hibbard has already assumed the mantle of test starter and Tom Youngs, with a more explosive impact off the bench, gives him the edge for the back-up role. However he starts a game on tour for the first time today and he too has had well documented issues with his throwing. Perhaps that is not overly surprising given he was a centre until current Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer arrived at Welford Road a few seasons ago and recommended that he take the massive leap to the front row.
At this stage, the back row combination looks like the most difficult to piece together given the excellent form of the six players to man those positions on tour to date. Thankfully tour captain Sam Warburton is finally set to become a fully fledged Lion when he leads out the side for the first time on debut today. Gatland has gone for the tried and trusted as he fields an all Welsh combination of Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate.
Many saw this as the test combination in advance of the tour but Jamie Heaslip has really thrown down the gauntlet to Faletau with an outstanding performance against the Force. He was my man of the match with Sean O’Brien not far behind. Factor in the lineout presence offered by Tom Croft, not to mention his pace and athleticism on the hard Australian grounds, and you have a special athlete. Justin Tipuric also did well in the tour opener in Hong Kong.
Gatland has an embarrassment of riches in that key back row sector, an area that will have a big influence on the outcome of the series. On the flip side, a unit of relative strength for Deans not so long ago has been considerably compromised by injuries to David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham. With serious doubts still surrounding the availability of George Smith — the only test Wallaby with experience of the 2001 series — due to his recent untimely knee injury, the Lions appear to have an edge.