Five things we learned...from the Combined Country clash
June 12, 2013
Lions fly-half Stuart Hogg carves his way through the Combined Country defence © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions' tour made it four wins in-a-row with a painfully one-sided 64-0 victory over a Combined Country XV in Newcastle on Tuesday night..
What did their latest win tell us? And what else did we learn that could impact on the Lions' chances of claiming a series victory over Australia?
Stuart could go the whole Hogg
Many were worried when Scotland's Stuart Hogg was pinpointed as the Lions' third fly-half option despite the fact he had not played at No.10 for a few years prior to the tour - and even then it was at club level for Hawick. Injury scares for Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton and his England counterpart Owen Farrell only heightened those fears - could a novice really spearhead the Lions' quest for a series victory over Australia? Hogg silenced his doubters with an accomplished display against an admittedly limited Combined Country XV that showcased his kicking, distribution and game-breaking skills. So impressive and assured was his performance that he has not only eased the fears of fans but also significantly boosted his chances of featuring in the Test series. While he is unlikely to force his way into the starting line-up, the versatile Hogg's ability to cover fullback, winger and fly-half make him a leading contender for a spot on the bench - maybe even at the expense of Farrell with Sexton on course to claim the No.10 jersey.
O'Driscoll doesn't do half measures
The Combined Country XV may have been a team of part-timers made up of students, plumbers, shop workers and carpenters but Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll was never going to take things easy - they may as well have been the Wallabies. Once again he set the standard in terms of commitment and you will struggle to notice a difference in his industry when spearheads the Lions' quest for a first Test victory in Brisbane on June 22. Much was made of his match-up with his Country counterpart Lewie Catt - an electrical engineer afforded time off work to tackle the 'superstar' he regards as the best centre of the past decade - but a ruthless O'Driscoll refused to spare him any pain with a clinical showing from the first whistle to the last - although he did hand his rival a souvenir post-match in the form of his shirt. Such is O'Driscoll's hunger he risked injury late in the game with a typically gutsy run that left him limping but that is BOD all over and we wouldn't want it any other way.
For his next trick...
It doesn't appear to matter what number you put on Sean O'Brien's back - he will put in an epic shift. The Irish powerhouse began the tour with a knee injury but shrugged off those concerns with an eye-catching display against the Western Force at openside that also highlighted his deft distribution and followed that up with another equally-impressive showing against the Combined Country XV - this time at blindside. He peppered the Country defence with an awe-inspiring 20 carries that were rewarded with one try, heaps of praise and further calls for him to be handed a Test spot. Only No.8 Toby Faletau has more carries on this tour, having featured in two more games, and only fleet-footed backs George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Sean Maitland have beaten more defenders . It is said versatility can count against a player, but on this evidence surely the Lions need to find him a home?
A ball or a bar of soap?
The Lions will not need reminding that a mis-firing lineout can prove very costly with Australia's Justin Harrison having stolen a crucial lineout in the decisive third Test in 2001 to all but snuff out the visitors' hopes of a rare series victory on their last visit Down Under. Three wayward lineouts against the Combined Country XV hinted not all is well - especially after they appeared to have remedied their earlier problems when they tackled the Reds at the weekend - although it can be explained to a degree by an experimental line-up and two locks not used to calling the shots. Excuses are harder to come by for the handling errors that blighted the Lions' best efforts. A greasy ball may not have helped their cause but such a lack of precision at the set-piece or in open play will prove costly come the Test series when time and space is at a premium..
Will a postcard do?
Newcastle may always be a stop on the Lions' itinerary when they venture to Australia due to the site of Robert Seddon's grave and the region's incredible respect for the Lions' first captain who was tragically killed in a boating accident nearby, but you sense they may not be lacing up their boot at Hunter Stadium in the future if the fixtures prove as pointless as this one. "It was a lot of use," insisted Gatland but by all accounts he wasn't overly-enthusiastic with his endorsement of the game - and you sense his mood would have taken a turn for the worse had his side suffered yet another injury casualty. Apart from Hogg's confidence-building run at fly-half, the Lions will have learnt little from this game except maybe that even the most pressure-free games scenarios can prompted a plethora of handling errors. Australia may not be able to provide suitably high-standard opposition outside of their Super Rugby sides so why not invite the Pacific Islands to make a cameo appearance either individually or in a representative team as they have done previously.
Lions flanker Sean O'Brien claimed 20 carries against the Combined Country XV in Newcastle © 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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