Waratahs ready 'to have a crack'
Cheika's promise of a real test is welcome but warm-ups shorn of quality opposition frustrating Gatland
IT speaks volumes for the Lions tour so far that they have arrived at the last meaningful match before the opening Test desperate for the challenge Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has promised them.
Of course, Lions tours are not just about the Test games. They are about promoting the game of rugby and affording players a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play against some of the world's very best.
When Combined Country centre Lewis Catt confidently strode into the post-match press conference on Tuesday wearing Brian O'Driscoll's sweat-stained Lions shirt, his smile beamed as bright as a supernova.
Similarly, the sense of achievement an understrength Munster side felt when they humbled Australia in Thomond Park in 2010 is a feeling that some of those players will never replicate in their careers.
Fixtures like Tuesday's in Newcastle must always have a place on Lions tours or the uniqueness of the experience will be lost. These matches should not, however, be allowed interfere with the Lions' preparations for the Tests.
The serious business of building a squad up to Test standard must always be of paramount importance and the Lions should have an influence in deciding the sequence of matches on tour.
Tuesday's game against a team composed primarily of amateurs was of no benefit to the tourists and if matches against this standard of opposition are to be included in the programme then they should be staged as early as possible.
Warren Gatland did voice some frustration when he suggested he would have preferred to have two more warm-up games before the first Test next Saturday.
If that is his opinion, then why did the Lions insist on making a detour to Hong Kong to play a match that was meaningless in a competitive sense and staged only to help finance the tour and, presumably, to satisfy the sponsors HSBC.
The damaging thing is that the Lions have no control over the quality of the Australian club opposition. Western Force's coach Michael Foley, for example, made the decision not to play a host of his better players in Perth to keep them fresh for their Super 15 game against the Waratahs.
If the Western Force did not consider the game meaningful, then why not find a team who would treat the visit of the Lions with the seriousness it deserves.
It would have helped the Lions enormously if there was one extra warm-up game against better quality opposition – like an Australia 'A' side or another international side prior to departing for the southern hemisphere.
It is what it is at this juncture and Cheika's promise that the Lions "will be tested" would have been welcomed by Gatland, as will the inclusion of four Australian internationals in their starting team.
"The odds are against us, massively, but we'll try and buck them," stated Cheika. "As long as there's a chance, we'll take it.
"We're not interested in a 'glorious defeat'. We want to have a crack at the Lions and try and sow dome doubts in their minds before that first Test on Saturday week."
The Waratahs are without Benn Robinson, Sekope Kepu, Kane Douglas, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu, Berrick Barnes, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau, who have all stayed with the Wallabies squad, while Tatafu Polota-Nau, Greg Peterson, Mitchell Chapman, Sitaleki Timani, Michael Hodge and Lachie Turner are injured.
They do include captain Dave Dennis at No 8 and centre Rob Horne. Both have been released by Australia coach Robbie Deans for the game, while full-back Drew Mitchell is certainly not a novice with 63 international caps to his credit.
Waratahs captain Dennis has promised that there will be no repeat of the corresponding fixture 12 years ago when then full-back Duncan McRae used Ronan O'Gara's face as a punching bag (he landed 11 blows), but echoes his coach's promise that the game will be a test for the Lions.
"The game has changed since then," said Dennis. "I want to beat those blokes and we won't beat them with 13 or 14 men. We need to be smart about that.
"There's good ways of hurting them, but make sure you do that legally rather than illegally."
The Waratahs certainly have the ability to hurt the Lions. They were expected to fall to Western Force last week, but, with a far more weakened side, they turned the Perth side over rather easily and showed in that game they can alter their approach as the occasion demands it.
They won't go as wide as often as Queensland Reds did, but they will spread the attack if given a glimpse of open field. For example they lead the Super 15 stats table for metres run (757) and are the second-highest try-scoring side in the competition.
If the Lions compress the midfield, with their back three bunching in on Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, the Waratahs will look to go wide and punish them. If that doesn't work they will look to run over them, which is where Cheika's promise of physicality comes into the equation.
This is a hugely important game for the Lions, not least in determining the make-up of the Test pack.
If Tom Youngs shows greater accuracy than Richard Hibbard did on Tuesday, he could steal a march on the Welshman and Rory Best, while Alun-Wyn Jones needs to prove that he is a viable candidate to complement and partner Paul O'Connell in the second-row.
The possible back-row selection for the Test is the one that is most open for debate, with assistant coach Graham Rowntree emphasising that tour captain Sam Warburton is not guaranteed a starting place in the team.
"Warren has been consistent with this. Sam is not guaranteed a Test place. He knows that, the other players know that," Rowntree said.
If that is truly the case then nothing short of a man-of-the-match performance will suffice for the Welshman as he has been the least impressive of the back-rows on tour. Both Justin Tipuric and Ireland's Sean O'Brien have performed better than him on the openside, while Tom Croft and O'Brien have been the form blindsides.
The Lions do have one more game before the Test, against the Brumbies, but it is unlikely Gatland will risk many of his first-team players in that fixture with the Test just days away.
This morning's game is the audition for the likes of Warburton and, indeed, Simon Zebo. Despite arriving only on Tuesday, Zebo has been selected to start the game as concerns continue to gather about the state of George North's hamstring.
If Zebo impresses it is probable he will then be challenged to back it up with a cameo in Canberra, with the carrot of Test selection dangling ever nearer.
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