Lions ready to bare their teeth
June 14, 2013
Can Captain Sam Warburton conjure another impressive display and cement his place in the Warren Gatland's plans for the Test series? © PA Photos
A formidable-looking British & Irish Lions side will be hoping to sound a warning to Australia when they tackle the Waratahs in their latest warm-up clash in Sydney on Saturday night.
The eagerly-anticipated first Test is just over a week away and time is running out for coach Warren Gatland to settle on his preferred line-up but the bulk of this line-up is expected to feature in that Brisbane showdown. Four consecutive victories have generated plenty of welcome momentum and provided a host of eye-catching performances but with only the Reds providing opposition of note, the pressure is on the Lions to find the kind of intensity that will be required to beat the Wallabies.
A lot will be expected of this Lions side - arguably the strongest selection of the tour - with the midweek clash against the Brumbies offering one final chance to look at fringe players and give them one last chance to impress. Looking to throw a spanner in the works are a Waratahs side stripped of the bulk of their internationals and struggling in this year's Super Rugby competition but determined to grab a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and with their eyes on a piece of history.
Few will be feeling the pressure more than Lions captain Sam Warburton who is in danger of becoming the first skipper not to feature in the first Test if he fails to deliver a timely-reminder of his class. Gatland will have a close eye on the flanker while also praying his plans are not derailed by yet more injury woe having already lost the services of several key player.
Waratahs - Player to Watch: Centre Rob Horne will not fear the Lions' all-Welsh midfield having scored two of Australia's five tries in their 3-0 series whitewash of Wales last year - can he prove as elusive this time around?
Waratahs - Team News: Despite having been shorn of eight internationals, the Waratahs' starting line-up will feature two current Wallabies in No.8 Dave Dennis and outside centre Rob Horne who have been released from the for this game. Club captain Pat McCutcheon returns from a knee injury in the only other change to the side that claimed a Super Rugby victory over the Western Force last weekend. There is further Test experience in the form of fullback Drew Mitchell and prop Paddy Ryan. Australia 7s' Bernard Foley has also been released and will start at No.10 with his international team-mate Ben Lucas among those named on the bench. The bench has been padded out with three inexperienced club players in Richard Aho and AJ Gilbert - who have both made just one Super Rugby appearance - and prop Sam Talakai - who is yet to make his NSW debut.
British & Irish Lions - Player to Watch: Captain Sam Warburton is under increasing pressure to deliver a huge performance and cement his place in coach Warren Gatland's plans for the first Test. Can the flanker produce his best and put his formidable back-row rivals in the shade?
British & Irish Lions - Team News: Warburton will captain a side that also includes other likely Test starters in prop Adam Jones, locks Paul O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones and form No. 8 Jamie Heaslip. The backline boasts lock-in fullback Leigh Halfpenny, centre Jamie Roberts and scrum-half Mike Phillips plus Irish fly-half Jonathan Sexton. New arrival Simon Zebo gets a run on the left wing with Sean Maitland on the other while Jonathan Davies partners Roberts in midfield. Hooker Tom Youngs and loose-head Mako Vunipola complete the front row while Tom Croft starts at blindside. Fullback Rob Kearney has overcome a hamstring injury and is set for his first tour outing off the bench.
Key Battle: Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has promised his side will 'go for it' on Saturday night and expect his captain and No.8 Dave Dennis to attempt to set the tone. But he is highly unlikely to get everything his own way with his Lions counterpart Jamie Heaslip at his lung-busting and ball-hungry best in recent weeks.
Trivia: New South Wales are looking to record their first win over Great Britain since their 18-14 victory in 1959.
Stats: The Lions beat the Waratahs 41-24 in a nine-try thriller at the same venue in 2001 but the stat that everyone remembers is the 11 punches that the Tahs' Duncan McRae landed on the tourists' Ronan O'Gara during a brutal assault.
Betting: Fancy new recruit Simon Zebo to announce his arrival on tour with a try? Bet365 are offering the Irish winger at 13/2 for the first try. You may think the Lions will put down a significant marker ahead of the first Test next weekend - so how about the visitors to win by 16-20 points at 11/2?
"The odds are against us, massively, but we'll try and buck them. As long as there's a chance, we'll take it. Anything in red that moves, we'll have a crack at."
"Players are always trying to impress, no matter what the game is. No one is reading into anything because there is still a lot to prove, there are still a couple of games to go before the first Test."- Lions captain Sam Warburton is taking nothing for granted when it comes to selection
Prediction: This Lions side not only oozes class but crucially features in-form players and others desperate to force their way into the Test picture. That adds up to a whole lot of pain for a gutsy Waratahs side that will eventually be swept aside.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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