Barbarians play role of perfect hosts as Lions acclimatise in style
Hong Kong clash proves a gentle workout for Paul O’Connell’s side
“Look how beautiful he slides into the ball”: Rafael Nadal of Spain in action against Fabio Fognini at the French Open. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Sky Sport has its own way of marketing a product and it’s never a soft sell. “And so began rugby’s greatest Odyssey” thundered the voice-over as the Lions, a patched together team, prepared to take on the Barbarians, a patched together team.
You could see the super cell forming over the grounds in Hong Kong as an accumulation of hype and analysis swept through sitting rooms on Saturday afternoon. A twister measuring 59 points was due.
Miles Harrison, Stuart Barnes, Will Greenwood, Ian McGeechan, Paul Wallace, Scott Quinnell and Dean Ryan knitted their brows and whetted our appetites.
But in the end there was no need as rugby subtly shifted from the traditional highly competitive and intense to a two hour slot of light entertainment. It was difficult to take the Lions opening game as anything other than a money spinner. For the Baa-baa players it was a cracking weekend in Hong Kong, a five star hotel and a wedge of euro for their troubles. Was there any more to it than that?
Eleven changes from the side that started against England showed the fun-lovin’ Baa-baas weren’t that interested in fielding a cohesive team, or one that could possibly put a dent in the Lions’ aspirations to win the three Test matches against Australia.
Some Irish interest in Ulster’s Jared Payne and Munster’s Casey Laulala failed to keep bad thoughts at bay from the moment Farrell kicked his first points from 39 metres, three minutes and four seconds into the game.
From there it unravelled along with any pretence it could be a competitive rugby match. As the tries rolled in and the points soared over, the first tour match became a voyeuristic experience with the promised thrill of a humiliating scoreline.
It was 23-3 at half time and after 80 minutes O’Connell, Phillips, Davies, Cuthbert, Lydiate and Jones had all touched down. But long before then we had turned over to Roland Garros, which disappointingly offered more of the same one-sided meetings.
Meanwhile. is there a more cheesy name on television than Eurosport’s Game Set and Mats?
The former Grand Slam winning Swede, Mats Wilander and presenter Annabel Croft, a one-time top-25 player who gave it all up at 21 because she didn’t like the grind, talk tennis each night after the day’s play in the French Open.
It’s not very often sliding into a corner of a tennis court gets described as a beautiful piece of choreography but whatever rocks your socks. Wilander sees these things through the eyes of the clay court animal he once was. Rafa sliding in to a backhand, a forehand and Wilander was purring.
“Look how beautiful he slides into the ball,” said the Swede as another gust of wind blew and the slides came perilously close to ankle jarring stops as the layers of fine red clay were carried off into the Parisian air leaving large bald patches of court.
Nadal faced Italian Fabio Fognini, who slowed down the Spaniard’s march through the draw early in the match but like the Baa-baas, finally imploded.
Novak Djokovic did the same to Grigor Dimitrov with even more economy, while French speaking Serena Williams, all big hair and yellow shorts, went 6-1 up against Roberta Vinci yesterday before polishing her off in just over an hour. It all illustrated that mismatches in rugby can be mirrored in other sports, although the straight set wins at Roland Garros were not as disappointing as the Lions opening game. And the reason was simple.
In Hong Kong people were asked to suspend all powers of reason and believe that the Barbarians were a credible outfit that required consideration, then feel elated when the Lions ran in 59 points.The poor dears.
Serena has done a Grand Slam match in 59 minutes. She’s done one in 29 minutes. Yesterday she followed speaking Italian in Rome by conducting her court-side post-match interview in French.
That’s a long way from Jennifer Capriati, whose cultural venture around Paris all those years ago was to go and visit “the tomb of that little dude”. Napoleon’s name, it seemed, just couldn’t come into her mind.