Lions ready to meet weakened Western Force with discipline

Brain O’Driscoll captains side determined not to rise to any provocation

Jonathan Sexton during British & Irish Lions kicking practice at Patersons Stadium, Perth, Australia. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jonathan Sexton during British & Irish Lions kicking practice at Patersons Stadium, Perth, Australia. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Back in 2001, the Lions kicked off their ten-match tour of Australia with a facile 116-10 win over a Western Australian selection at the WACA, which only merits a footnote in history because of the historic scoreline. Since then, the Australians have increased their Super franchises from three to five, seemingly indicating a much tougher Oz Odyssey this time around, not least from an historic first game in Australia against one of those new franchises. Alas and alack, probably not.

History may not quite repeat itself, but the Force are less likely to live up to their name given Michael Foley’s weakened selection. Outside of their feisty scrumhalf Brett Sheehan and outhalf Sam Norton-Knight, their back five includes two debutants and three players with less than ten Super Rugby caps. Only four of their pack, tighthead Salesi Ma’afu, lock Toby Lynn, flanker Matt Hodgson and number eight Richard Brown, could be considered first-choice. What’s more, their bench contains five uncapped players, with only ex-All Black scrumhalf Alby Mathewson providing any kind of experience.

Foley made reference to the aforementioned six players in the starting line-up, all of them Wallabies, as evidence of his strong selection and maintained it was “unreasonable” to expect his side to play two games in five days given they are also hosting the Waratahs on Sunday.

“The pressure is to deliver every game you play as a team. When you suggest not putting every effort into the first game I think that is pretty insulting to the guys taking the field. We think this is the best team for for this game in light of the fixture list we have been given.”

Yet not alone is the attendance for the Lions game (with 30,000-plus tickets already sold of the 40,000 capacity at the Subiaco Oval) likely to double that for the visit of the Waratahs, Sunday’s game is effectively a dead rubber. Furthermore, even the richly promising 20-year-old Kyle Godwin may not be around to face the Lions in 12 years ’time, and he would surely have benefitted more from facing Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi and co. After all, they’ll play the Waratahs another 24 times or so before facing the Lions again in 2025.

But clearly Foley is not of a mind to prioritise this historic fixture for the Force, despite being a Wallaby in that series win 12 years ago, over a game against his former employers at New South Wales. And perhaps therein lies the rub.


Provocative statements
In response to all of this, the mantra from the Lions camp yesterday, be it scrum coach Graham Rowntree, Rory Best or Tom Croft, was that the tourists are “focussing on ourselves”. This also applied in response to provocative statements from the Force camp, notably from Sheehan, who vowed they would make it “bloody hard” for the tourists and seek to get under their skin.

“There’s always provocation,” said Rowntree. “What we can’t be doing is getting drawn into anything . . . If we’re getting drawn into something, we’re not doing our job elsewhere – that’s what I keep telling the forwards. There are enough opportunities in the game to be physical and put your mark on the game, the scrum, breakdown, tackles are all physical moments,” he said, rejecting the notion that the opposition might take liberties.

“Gats (Warren Gatland) has spoken to the team this morning. We are here to play rugby not to be drawn into silliness. They know the sanctions in place if they overstep the mark. You are going to get banned, you could miss a tour if you are not switched on.”

Little about the Force’s selection will concern a Lions team captained by O’Driscoll, a debutant try-scorer amongst the 11 players who accounted for the tourists’ 18 tries a dozen years ago. It certainly won’t concern Best on his Lions’ debut, not least after initially miss out on selection.

“I was driving to our Ulster training ground to pick up a few bits and pieces, to get ready to go to Carton House on the Monday morning, to go to Houston with Ireland,” recalled Best yesterday of his call-up a day before departure. “A phone call came in on my way to Belfast.”

Arriving in Hong Kong 12 hours after Tommy Bowe and the Leinster contingent, he “didn’t feel that far behind”. Acknowledging that his lineout throwing stats since the turn of the year probably cost him his initial place and that while some of that was due to the absence of Paul O’Connell, not to mention Johann Muller, along with the smartness of the opposition, he admitted that he would have changed a few throws but either way the hooker cops the blame.

He experienced “the two extremes” of emotions in missing out and then being called up. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Few people get to do it and you want to get out there, do your best . . Competition for places is what it’s all about. For me whether I was selected in the initial or coming in late as I did, I’m here and I’m getting a chance to play. It’s a massive honour for me to be playing tomorrow night.”