Rather like two lovers discussing the reasons for a difficult break-up, the Australian Super XV strugglers have been told “it’s not about you, it’s about me” by the Lions coaching think tank, who will be a step closer after this to assessing the merits of their players for selection ahead of the three-Test series with the Wallabies beginning on June 22 in Brisbane.
So, whether the Force, who have named a weakened side just four days ahead of an all-Australian Super XV clash with the Waratahs, come to the party or not, the Lions will be focused purely on who in red steps up to the mark and lays down a marker for a coveted Test spot.
The last time the Lions were in these parts, Western Australia were handed a 116-10 hammering at Perth’s WACA stadium in 2001 and while the Force are a different animal to that entity, another drubbing is not out of the question. Whether that would represent a worthwhile exercise or not, forwards coach Graham Rowntree was not prepared to say.
“All we can speak about is us. Let’s flip it over. For these guys it is their first chance in a Lions shirt. Very quickly on a Lions tour you can go to the back of the queue if you don’t perform. So it is down to our guys to perform irrelevant of who is on the field, Rowntree said. “If that amounts to a big win then fantastic.”
Force head coach Michael Foley may have rested many of his first-choice players and was unable to select Wallabies Nick Cummins and Ben McCalman, yet there are still six players with Test experience in his squad to face the Lions, including captain Matt Hodgson, fellow back rower Richard Brown, half-backs Sam Norton-Knight and Brett Sheehan and prop Salesi Ma’afu, all of whom start, while four-cap All Blacks scrum-half Alby Mathewson is on the bench.
“There are a lot of familiar names in that forwards pack who I have seen and who have played for Australia for us to respect,” Rowntree said. “These guys have been playing and training together and they will be more organised than the Barbarians.”
The Barbarians, of course, wilted in the Hong Kong heat last Saturday, beaten 59-8 by a powerful Lions outfit which threw down the gauntlet to today’s all-new 15, captained by Brian O’Driscoll 12 years on from his Lions debut in Perth.
O’Driscoll’s midfield partnership with England’s Manu Tuilagi will be one of the areas under close scrutiny from Warren Gatland and his coaches, who saw rivals Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies impress against the Baa-Baas.
While the all-Welsh second row of Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans will look to continue their Six Nations championship-winning form into the Lions tour.
Jonny Sexton will get his chance to impress alongside Ireland half-back partner Conor Murray, with the Racing Metro-bound fly-half seemingly in the box seat for a Test place after Owen Farrell’s disappointing outing in Hong Kong.
Not that he will be thinking that way and Rowntree underlined what the coaches wanted to see from this Lions team in Perth.
“To see guys fitting in to the way we do things, into our systems [and] the way we play, adapting but still bringing their game that got them selected in the first place.”
Tougher challenges may be coming down the line, but this is nevertheless a chance for these Lions to shine, regardless of the opposition.