Of course Warren Gatland’s 2013 squad is unbeaten after five games and certainly Saturday’s convincing five tries to two victory over the Waratahs represented the toughest physical battle yet, but as three-tour veteran Paul O’Connell knows only too well, the difference between tour-match and Test-match intensity is huge and as well as any preparation goes, there is nothing that can simulate the fever pitch at which Saturday’s first Test against Australia will be played out in Brisbane.
The Lions were sharp and slick and smart enough to ignore the near-constant provocation thrown at them in the form of late hits and off-the-ball nonsense that Michael Cheika’s side persisted with throughout this game. There was nothing as graphically violent as the common assault perpetrated by Duncan McRae 12 years earlier on Ronan O’Gara in the same arena, but what the 2013 Waratahs did was cynical in the extreme and mainly directed towards the Lions’ Test half-back pairing of Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton, the latter being dispatched almost as far as Brisbane early on by a flying tackle from the monstrously proportioned lock Will Skelton. A 6ft 6in and 21-stone behemoth Skelton caused Warren Gatland’s men serious problems in more legitimate circumstances at the lineout and maul, each time manufacturing a try for the home side.
Still, as annoying as that last facet was to O’Connell, he knows to expect much more intensity when the Lions finally face the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium.
“I think we’ve done everything we can and there’s still more work to do, but it’s still a big ask to be taking on a southern hemisphere team with four or five weeks’ preparation,” O’Connell said.
“I suppose there’s a lot of talk, maybe, it’s the first Lions tour I’ve ever been on where it’s been close to being 50/50 or almost favourites and it’s something that’s very difficult to comprehend because we’ve been together four or five weeks and it’s very difficult to become a team in that time. Australia have been playing together a long time under this coach and that’s the big challenge for us, trying to be Test standard four weeks into playing with another.
“If you look at the backline and the way the backs have been playing it’s certainly a step up. Forward wise we’ve performed really well as well. We’ve carried well, did well at the breakdown at times and it’s as good as any team I’ve been on but you don’t really know until you get to the Tests. We’ve a very tough three weeks ahead of us and we need to prepare to the best of our ability and we can guarantee that physicality and intensity-wise it’s going to be a big step up from[Saturday] night.”
If the Lions can keep their composure as they did against the Waratahs, though, it will be no small feat and blindside flanker and second-half try scorer Tom Croft, another who looked to play himself into the Test side in another impressive back row outing alongside Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip, credited the cool heads that will be needed against the Wallabies.
“The boys handled themselves very well,” Croft said. “There was a lot of things and off-the-ball blocking which guys tend to get at their clubs in the Premiership and could react to and lash out. But it’s been made clear from the start there’s no point lashing out at a small, insignificant thing and getting banned from the Tests.
“So take it to them in the scrum and the lineout, in the contact, in a legal way and leave it at that. Obviously they will try and antagonise us, especially going in towards the Tests, but fair play to the boys they are keeping their heads and responding well to it.”
With so many players putting their hands up on Saturday, not least openside flanker and tour captain Warburton, Gatland must surely have only one or two vacancies left to fill in his Test XV, although that cause has hardly been helped by further disruption to his backline after Jamie Roberts joined big wings Tommy Bowe and George North on the sidelines with an apparent hamstring injury. That trio, as well as Roberts’ fellow centre Manu Tuilagi, will all need to assure Gatland by Wednesday that they are ready to go for the first Test, with Jon Davies positioned to occupy Roberts’ inside centre berth after a dazzling try-scoring performance and Simon Zebo equally impressive on the wing as he and Alex Cuthbert look to fit the bill in the likely absence of Bowe and North.
Not that the Kiwi coach appeared outwardly taxed by a situation he claimed to be “excited” by.
“The fact you pick up injuries, that’s part of the game and it’s a great opportunity for other players to come in and put their hands up.
“I thought a good example was last night and a couple of players really stepped up. I thought Alun Wyn-Jones was brilliant, I thought Jonathan Davies the way he played was fantastic. It’s nice to see players when they’re under pressure get the chance to come in and do well.
“We’ve got a strong squad and if we do pick up one or two injuries there are a lot of people capable of coming in and doing a job for us.”
NSW WARATAHS: D Mitchell; C Crawford, R Horne, T Carter (T Kingston, 47), P Betham (B Volavola, 72); B Foley, B McKibbin (M Lucas, 72); J Tilse (R Aho, 72), J Ulugia (L Holmes, 72), P Ryan (S Talakai, 72); W Skelton, O Atkins; J Holloway (L Timani, 49), P McCutcheon (AJ Gilbert, 55), D Dennis – captain.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Halfpenny (R Kearney, 60); S Maitland, J Davies, J Roberts, S Zebo; J Sexton (O Farrell, 47), M Phillips (B Youngs, 60); M Vunipola (A Corbisiero, 60), T Youngs (R Hibbard, 60), A Jones (D Cole, 60); A W Jones, P O’Connell (G Parling, 60); T Croft (D Lydiate, 60), S Warburton – captain, J Heaslip.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)