Lions' quest gets underway against BaaBaas
May 31, 2013
Lions centre Jamie Roberts attempts to combat the heat during a training session in Hong Kong © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions' latest tour swings into action with a clash against a star-studded Barbarians side in Hong Kong on Saturday.
Four years after bring down the curtain on their epic battle against South Africa with a memorable victory over the Springboks, a new-look Lions side will aim to make a winning start to a tour that they hope will end with a series triumph against Australia.
The Lions' preparations have not gone too smoothly with a suspension ending hooker Dylan Hartley's tour before it had begun, an injury robbing them of the services of captain Sam Warburton and the stifling heat and humidity sapping life out of Warren Gatland's squad during training this week.
The Barbarians have had their own issues with the invitational side having slumped to a demoralising defeat against England last weekend. They have since been the subject of widespread criticism with Sir Clive Woodward among those to question their relaxed approach. Barbarians management claimed to have introduced a booze ban in a bid to ensure the Lions were met with a challenge worthy of the occasion but it appears the message didn't get through to everyone.
There are also concerns that a game billed as a once in a lifetime match-up may not even sell out the 40,000 Hong Kong Stadium but that is unlikely to trouble the Lions players out to put an early marker down for the Test series and their Barbarians rivals who will be equally determined to claim their own piece of history.
Barbarians - Player to Watch: The Barbarians are not short of talent but arguably they do not come any better than Italy No.8 Sergio Parisse who will lead the side on his first appearance in the famous black and white shirt.
Barbarians - Team News: Only four players - centre Elliot Daly, wing Takudzwa Ngwenya, centre Casey Laulala and lock Marco Wentzel - survive from the side hammered by England last weekend. Parisse captains a side featuring ex-All Blacks Joe Rokocoko and Nick Evans, France scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and former Springboks hooker Schalk Brits. Wales loose-head prop Paul James and Italy tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni are also included as is USA Eagles international Samu Manoa and uncapped Wasps flanker Sam Jones.
British & Irish Lions - Player to Watch: With many still pushing Jonny Wilkinson's claims, the current England fly-half Owen Farrell has the perfect opportunity to silence his doubters and put down a marker for the rest of the tour.
British & Irish Lions - Team News: With Warburton sidelined, Ireland lock Paul O'Connell leads a side including nine Welshmen with 17 of the matchday squad on their first Lions tour. Scotland's Stuart Hogg gets the first opportunity at fullback with Wales' Alex Cuthbert and Scotland's Sean Maitland named on the wings. Wales duo Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies form a familiar midfield pairing with England's Owen Farrell at fly-half and Wales' Mike Phillips at scrum-half. England loose-head Mako Vunipola and Wales tight-head Adam Jones will pack down either side of Wales hooker Richard Hibbard with O'Connell and Scotland's Richie Gray in the second row. The Welsh trio of blindside Dan Lydiate, openside Justin Tipuric and No.8 Toby Faletau complete the starting line-up.
Key Battle: The most significant battle is set to be that between the players and the elements with the heat and humidity sure to take its toll on those involved and the game as a whole. Aside from that, keep an eye on the work-rate of the Barbarians' Samu Manoa, who has been in top form for Northampton in recent weeks, as he goes head-to-head in a fascinating blindside battle with the Lions' Dan Lydiate who needs to prove his fitness having sat out much of the season through injury.
Trivia: The Lions have met the Barbarians in one other game with the elite tourists beating the world-famous invitational side 23-14 in a special game held at Twickenham to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee in September 1977.
Stats: The Lions have not lost the opening game since a 15-11 defeat to the Queensland Reds back in 1971 on a tour that ended with what is still their only series victory over New Zealand.
"We probably didn't realise quite what it meant in terms of conditions and heat and that is a lesson learnt"
"We didn't play anything like we expected and we know we are going to have to be a lot better."
Prediction: With precious few chances for the Lions to stake a claim for a Test berth, expect the tourists to weather an improved Barbarians side and the elements before powering away to a convincing victory.
The star-studded Lions are under pressure to improve on their showing against England last weekend © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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