Chance for O'Driscoll and Roberts to secure centre stage
IT seems unlikely that Warren Gatland will show his full hand to Australia until the week of the first Test, but the combination of Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts in the Lions midfield today paints an intriguing picture.
Four years ago they were the stand-out pairing in South Africa. Their particular skill-sets complemented each other's game perfectly and they absolutely terrorised the Springboks. Is Gatland set to unleash this duo on the Wallabies?
The competition this time around is far tougher. Both Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi have impressed in their outings in the famous blood-red shirt. The O'Driscoll/Roberts combination is a powerful one, however, and if they click today as they did four years ago they could be the key to a series victory.
Despite possessing some quality, with eight Super 15 players, the Combined Country side are not at the same standard as the Queensland Reds and the Lions are expected to register a high score against them.
They are made up of players drawn from the New South Wales Country and Queensland Country areas specifically for this game and with only a couple of days' preparation together they will be no match for the O'Driscoll-captained Lions.
It has been suggested in some Australian media outlets that O'Driscoll won't make the Test team but that is probably wishful thinking on the side of the Aussies. He looked very sharp when scoring his two tries in Perth last week and is clearly fit and hungry to sign off his Lions career on a high note.
There is also much to play for among his Ireland team-mates, not least Jamie Heaslip. At the start of the tour Heaslip was considered to be the second-choice No 8 behind Wales' Toby Faletau, but the Ireland captain can steal a march on his rival tonight.
Faletau was part of a back-row that was largely unimpressive against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday night. He offered little in the way of control at the base of the scrum and had none of Heaslip's impact with ball in hand.
Heaslip is clearly rediscovering the form that made him such an irresistible tourist four years ago. If he can dominate today, as he should, he will surely put himself in pole position to start the first Test on June 22.
"Every game counts on so many different levels," said Heaslip. "You've just got to take your chance and play your own game and do the jersey proud.
"Every chance you get to wear the jersey is a big one and you've got to take it with both hands. There's a Test spot in 12 days' time – you can't ignore it but you can't think about it a whole lot."
How Sean O'Brien and Justin Tipuric perform on either side of him will also be keenly watched by Gatland after the all-Welsh back-row on Saturday night was not impressive and that trio did their chances of Test selection more harm than good.
Heaslip cut a relaxed figure as the squad arrived in Newcastle yesterday ahead of the game and it didn't take long for him to poke fun at his fellow entertainment committee member, the injured Tommy Bowe.
"Tommy is in flying form," said Heaslip. "We are straight away giving him stick that he is the coffee boy.
"He is just getting the usual grief off the lads but he's full of life and full of spirit. I am just making sure that even though he is one-handed that he doesn't get fined because he can't do something because of his injury!
"We've been fined a bit already but I'd better keep the reason in-house for the moment!"
The Lions are set to start with Scotland's Stuart Hogg at No 10 as Jonathan Sexton (hamstring) and Owen Farrell (dead leg) are both rested and receiving treatment after their recent exertions.
It's something Combined Country coach Cameron Blades was quick to pick up on ahead of the contest.
"Ten is obviously an area we've looked at with a new fella in there," he said. "But this is a very strong Lions side. You need only look to the experienced centre pairing for proof. They're going to be strong one through 15 and it's going to be a massive challenge."
It is inconceivable that the Combined Country will be a match for the Lions. For certain the game will be a physical one and the Australians will seek to dominate their opposite numbers. For the likes of Heaslip and Conor Murray, this game is all about keeping their stock high.
The style the Lions are playing means that carriers like Heaslip play prominent roles. He can be overshadowed in a Leinster shirt when O'Brien is at open-side but today's back-row is set up for all three to carry.
"It is a really interesting shape that we are playing and the back-row have a pretty prominent role to play, and it is great to get your hands on the ball. I'm enjoying it," added Heaslip.
As one of the more experienced tourists, Heaslip is taking on a leadership role within the squad, which is something that sits comfortably with him after his experiences with Ireland this season.
"I am four years wiser and bit more experienced and a bit more street-smart this time around," he said. "What I try to bring from the last tour is the experience I had then in making sure you don't stay in the comfort of your little clique and trying to break that up.
"We have Grand Slam winners, Six Nations winners, Heineken Cup winners, there is a really good mix there and we're all enjoying it."
This is the fourth game of the Lions tour and it is expected that today and Saturday, when the Lions play the Waratahs in Sydney, will be the last time many of the Test side play as it is unlikely Gatland will risk injury to key players in next Tuesday's game against the Brumbies.
Combined Country – N Trist; A Gibbon, L Catt, TJ Siakisini T Cox; A Roberts, M Snowden; H Hirmisaki, J Mann-Rea, T Metcher; P Battye, B Enever; R Stanford, J Butler, T Davidson. Reps: T Kearney , D Evans, R Abraham, R Arnold, T Dyer, A McCormack, S McCarthy, D Ahwang.
Lions – S Maitland (Scotland); A Cuthbert (Wales), B O'Driscoll (Ireland, captain), J Roberts (Wales), G North (Wales); S Hogg (Scotland), C Murray (Ireland); A Corbisiero (England), R Hibbard (Wales), D Cole (England); R Gray (Scotland), I Evans (Wales); S O'Brien (Ireland), J Tipuric (Wales), J Heaslip (Ireland). Reps: R Best (Ireland), R Grant (Scotland), M Stevens (England), AW Jones (Wales), T Faletau (Wales), M Phillips (Wales), J Davies (Wales), L Halfpenny (Wales).
Ref – S Walsh (Aus).
Combined Country v Lions,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 10.30am (Irish time)