Sport Rugby

Friday 19 January 2018

O'Connell looking to 'set down a marker'

Conor George

Conor George

THE mood in the Lions camp was doggedly upbeat and infused with a hint of expectation and more than a little excitement ahead of this morning's opening game of their 10-match tour.

Paul O'Connell's easy smile suggested an inner calm and his words gave voice to the ambitions of this Lions squad – "We're here to win," stated the second-row.

"You want to set down a marker with your first outing. It sets the tone for the tour."

While a loss to the Barbarians today will not spell disaster for the class of 2013, it would be a setback to their preparations for the upcoming assault on Australia. For a touring side of the Lions' uniqueness every positive counts, and starting what is an arduous tour with a victory is crucial.

The biggest issue the players will have to contend with, other than a Barbarians side seeking to reclaim some pride after their horrific performance against England on Saturday, will be the stifling heat and humidity.

SWELTERING

The game kicks off at 7.30pm Hong Kong time (12.30pm Irish) but it is still expected that humidity will be in the high 70s and the temperature a sweltering 30 degrees. The players have been acclimatising all week but they know they are in for a ferocious experience.

"It's not going to be easy to play in those conditions," said scrum-half Mike Phillips.

In an effort to minimise the effects of the conditions there will be water breaks during both halves to allow players to take fluids on board – "players have been losing up to four kilos in some training sessions," explained coach Andy Farrell yesterday – but even with those measures they will suffer during the match.

"It's going to be tough, we're expecting that," said Phillips. "But it's the same for both sides and the tour really starts with the first game doesn't it? We're all excited to be a part of this tour but we can't settle for that. This time it has to be about winning the tour."

For those Lions players who have been selected, this game offers them an opportunity to steal a march on their colleagues competing with them for the coveted blood-red uniform of a Test starter, as the scrum-half emphasised.

"I'm chuffed to be picked to start the first game. It gives you a chance to lay down a marker. Since the squad was announced you're waiting to get in and get a go.

"And with the team announced I'm really looking forward to getting my chance to show what I can do," added Phillips.

Whether the Lions management team – and players – will learn anything from this game is the big question in the aftermath of the Barbarians' appalling performance against England in Twickenham last weekend.

They were humbled 40-12 by a far from star-studded English side. The pride of the players involved will spark some reaction and the Babas' squad members have been making positive noises this week about their intentions, but it's hard to see them living up to those.

Traditionally the Barbarians have a strong emphasis on running rugby and entertainment but they will find it extremely difficult to play an expansive game given the constraints imposed by the conditions.

The match might, though, give a first real insight into what basic tactics the Lions will be relying on in their efforts to win their first Test series since 1997.

It has been suggested that Warren Gatland will rely heavily on brawn and less on brains, and there is no denying his squad is heavy on power-players.

There is an infusion of guile in players such as Kiwi native Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg, but no one can accuse the likes of Mako Vunipola of playing with any great subtlety.

Hopefully, even allowing for the conditions, the Lions will show more ambition than simply bish-bosh, and the strike running of Jamie Roberts as well as the superb ball-carrying and handling abilities of the all-Welsh back-row of Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau will be among the highlights.

The opening games of Lions tours are always fraught with danger because the coaching team have not had a great deal of time to get an entirely new set of colleagues on the one wavelength.

The importance of getting on to a winning plane from the off cannot be exaggerated because losing can set a team's confidence back and it can be hard to recover from an opening-day loss.

For the class of 2013, this fixture is also about making the most of their opportunity to stake a claim to a Test shirt ahead of those who will be watching from the sidelines and chomping at the bit for an opportunity to state their own case, as Roberts highlighted.

"It's no secret that there's a lot of competition for my position in the centre," said Roberts. "The challenge is for me and Jonathan (Davies) to set the bar high. The challenge for those coming after us is to reach and raise that bar.

"That's hopefully the secret to a winning tour – that we all raise our games and challenge those around us to do the same so that we're pushing each other to be better in every training session and in every game," Roberts added.

There are some tasty encounters in store in this game. The head-to-head between Faletau and Barbarians captain Sergio Parisse, for example, has the potential to be explosive.

And if that doesn't whet your appetite it's guaranteed the replacement No 8s, Jamie Heaslip and Imanol Harinordoquy, will come nose-to-nose at some point.

Similarly, how the New Zealand wingers – Maitland (Lions) and Joe Rokocoko (Barbarians) – shape up is also an exciting prospect.

From an Irish perspective the excitement revolves around captain O'Connell and the historic honour he has of leading out a Lions team for the opening game for the second successive tour, while Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Jonathan Sexton will all make their Lions debuts in the game.

Irish Independent

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