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O'Driscoll relishing Roberts reunion


Johnny Sexton. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Johnny Sexton. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Johnny Sexton. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

STAND-IN captain Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts will look to turn back time to their destructive combination on the 2009 tour to South Africa when the British and Irish Lions turn up to tackle Combined New South Wales-Queensland Country at Hunter Stadium tomorrow.

Welshman Roberts was decorated as the Man of the Series in 2009, partly off the back of his telepathic understanding with O'Driscoll.

Indeed, the addition of Welsh wings George North and Alex Cuthbert, now that Tommy Bowe has been injured, complete what could be the Lions three-quarter line for the first Test on Saturday week.

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip and Seán O'Brien have both hit the ground running, as has Justin Tipuric, in what is an exciting loose forward trio for tomorrow.

Their problem is that coach Warren Gatland has not seen it fit to give them the sort of test against New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday that Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau had against Queensland.

It will be very difficult to measure their merit against what is sure to be a less than worthy opponent tomorrow. Scrum-half Conor Murray will start for the second time and hooker Rory Best will be primed from the bench as the sixth Irish international scheduled for involvement.

The toll taken in the 22-12 scalping of the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium could yet be definitive given how it has left the tour of Bowe hanging in the balance and prompted a tightening of Jonathan Sexton's hamstring.

The best present Ewan McKenzie's Reds could have handed Wallaby coach Robbie Deans was a worrying Lions injury list. Manu Tuilagi also took a stinger to his arm/shoulder.

"The Reds game was always going to be a big challenge and I was delighted at the victory and the way we were tested," said Gatland.

"It was a very physical match, as we knew it would be. We now move on to Newcastle and another challenge.

"This team to play Country includes three players – Richie Gray, Alex Cuthbert and Stuart Hogg – who are starting their second game in a row plus another, George North, who came off the bench early against the Reds.

"This is the nature of Lions tours as we adapt to injuries and playing twice a week."

As Gatland continues to push the Welsh template for kicking inside their own half and using power runners ad infinitum, the injuries mount, taking first and second choice loose-heads Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins out of the equation completely.

Increasingly, England's Owen Farrell is showing a propensity for taking his kicks, but, also, for playing recklessly with the ball and not bringing players into the game.

As the haze over Test selection slowly clears, Roberts and O'Driscoll are the two players that could provide the skill factor and fluidity, through their passing and intuition, that Gatland requires.

"Myself and Jamie hit it off well in South Africa four years ago," O'Driscoll said. "We clicked quite early on in training and we managed to do so in games, so it would be nice to pick up hopefully from where we left off.

"Similar to what I said last week about Manu (Tuilagi), Jamie has got a great range to his game as well. Everyone sees the size, but he's a good distributor, a good off-loader, clever in defence and reads things well."

And O'Driscoll is relishing linking up with the Welshman as the Lions chase a fourth successive tour win. Sexton's hamstring will be treated with the utmost care and the physicality of the tour may have encouraged Gatland to use what he views as his Test three-quarter line to fine tune their patterns away from the brutish behaviour of Michael Cheika's Waratahs.

Queensland did expose Cuthbert defensively, not just for Peter Morahan's exquisite try, but for his slow reaction to what was happening in front of him. Cuthbert is as much a liability in defence as he is a force in attack.