The British & Irish Lions’ stopover in Hong Kong perhaps failed to live up to its billing.
Humidity peaked at 94 per cent, temperatures flirted with 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while the majority of play failed to impress upon a crowd well below Hong Kong Stadium’s 40,000 capacity.
Toby Falatau, Mike Phillips and Stuart Hogg stood out for the Lions against the Barbarians, but for former Lion, Tim Rodber, little can be taken from a match that’s main purpose was to give the squad a chance to settle and to satisfy commercial sponsors.
“I felt sorry for the players — the heat was ridiculous,” Rodber told Al Jazeera.
“A few of the guys played reasonably well against fairly poor opposition. The Barbarians are a group of guys who get on the beer every night and they were playing against the Lions — there was no contest.”
It was probably something of a relief to head coach Warren Gatland and his management team then that the squad made the 10-hour flight to Sydney with nearly everyone still intact.
Worries remain over the fitness of captain Sam Warburton, prop Gethin Jenkins, flanker Sean O’Brien and Irish full-back, Rob Kearney, whose hamstring tear is causing the greatest concern among the medics. But Warburton and Jenkins are both expected to participate fully in Wednesday’s training while other members of the Lions party take on Western Force in Perth.
Rodber, a veteran of the victorious tour to South Africa in 1997, is all too aware of the impact injuries have on a squad.
A week out from the first Test, which the Lions would go on to win 25-16, the tourists had lost Doddie Weir, Scott Quinnell, Paul Grayson and Rob Howley.
“The real issue is that the first choice team you would pick on paper is never the team that plays in the first Test.
“It is going to be about the players who react well in the environment, hit a rich vein of form, who are fit. It could be anyone one of them. There will probably be two or three not in the party at the moment who will get involved.
“Warburton in particular is going to potentially have four games to prove himself, probably two, and he has got to play well.
“If he plays well he has got a chance and then it is a question of combinations. It is hard to imagine changing the Welsh back row of Warbuton, Justin Tipuric and Falatau that played against England. Croft could come in, but it is hard to see how Gatland wouldn’t go with that back row if they are all playing well.”
Rodber does not believe Gatland is afraid of dropping his captain: “If Warburton is not playing well enough they will not pick him. You have got two other international captains there in Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. I think people are getting bent out of shape about it.
Gatland is not stupid, I have played against him, and I know him quite well. He is a shrewd operator and he will pick a team he believes can beat Australia. That is going to be based on form, combinations and fitness. Nothing is going to get in the way of that decision-making process
“Gatland is not stupid, I have played against him, and I know him quite well. He is a shrewd operator and he will pick a team he believes can beat Australia. That is going to be based on form, combinations and fitness. Nothing is going to get in the way of that decision-making process.”
Croft will have a chance to impress Gatland in tomorrow’s match at Patersons Stadium, though the build-up has focussed on the centre partnership of Manu Tuilagi at 12 and O’Driscoll outside him. However, Rodber, the former Northampton Saints No.8, is not entirely convinced by the excitement surrounding it.
“I think Tuilagi has looked really, really good in moments, but has drifted in games and Jamie Roberts has played consistently well and is a consistent top performer at that level. People are speculating that O’Driscoll will be in the Test team – I wouldn’t bank on that. I can’t remember the last time he played well.
“Jonathan Davies has played well, Tuilagi too at 13. There are all sorts of combinations and O’Driscoll has to play well, which I don’t think he has for Ireland this year. He has had a couple of moments of brilliance, but struggled with injury and consistency. Having said that, he is a world-class player and will probably turn it around in five games and prove that he should be playing.”
Injuries and a lack of consistency have also hampered Australia in recent times. The loss of David Pocock, George Smith, Digby Ioane, Scott Higginbotham and Sitaleki Timani, combined with a forward pack that on current form will struggle to cope with the Lions, and the task appears too great for the hosts.
“On paper, no. They have not got a chance,” explains Rodber.
“Having said that, they have the ability when they are on form and have their best players fit, to turn anyone over. You have to remember that as much of an honour as it is for the British and Irish guys playing for the Lions, it is for the guys playing for Australia against the Lions, and it will bring the best out of them.
“On paper, discussions are just pure speculation. At the end of day everyone’s game raises in these types of fixtures. The Australians love playing against the Lions – this is it for them.”
Max Forsyth is a freelancer sports journalist – you can follow him on Twitter @maxforsyth91