Thursday 22 February 2018

Simmering in Hong Kong sauna leaves everyone cold

Locals would be more interested in two flies going up a wall, writes Brendan Fanning

Four years ago in South Africa the Lions tour started near Rustenburg, an out-of-the-way place in the north west of the country, and the most remarkable aspect of the game was that so few seats in the 45,000-seat stadium were occupied. It would be a recurring theme for much of that trip, how the South African union managed to price the circus beyond the reach of the common man.

In Hong Kong the common man would be more interested in two flies going up a wall than how the latest manifestation of the Lions were shaping up, so yet again we had the unappealing vista of the biggest brand in world rugby being paraded on the wrong catwalk.

And this was all about the brand.

Stopping in Hong Kong was a commercial exercise, the target being that if it could wash its face financially this time then it might be a tidy earner in four years en route to New Zealand.

The players will hope it lost its shirt for the prospect of having to return to sauna conditions for training and playing won't hold much appeal. Hard enough for two scratch teams to provide a decent game; harder still when they're subjected to these conditions.

In the absence of the Hong Kong rugby union building an indoor, air-conditioned stadium, and making 15-a-side rugby a sexy product in that part of the world, then the Lions rugby map needs to be redrawn – without Hong Kong.

As for the game, the Lions management got something from the exercise in as much as it was the first time they could run through a few patterns against live opposition. Mostly they wanted a good scrum session – they demolished the Barbarians at the set-piece – and to get out of there without anyone being carted off.

There was something for the Wallaby management as well. They got reaffirmation of the combustibility of Owen Farrell. For a horrible moment before the game had even settled down you feared the tourists were about to lose a player with a broken jaw after he provoked Schalk Brits.

He must have almost imperceptibly shifted his weight away from Brits as the Barbarian – and Farrell's clubmate at Saracens – threw a haymaker at him for refusing to drop an illegal bind. Brits was shown yellow and as referee Steve Walsh conceded at the time, the leniency was only because of the occasion.

Of course Farrell reacted immediately to the dig but he should have been binned as well.

It is a maddening feature of modern rugby that players are consistently allowed to illegally impede opponents, typically at the edge of ruck and maul. It's hard to understand why IRB referees manager Joel Jutge doesn't get the message out that yellow cards for every incident should be automatic.

In any case, the Lions escaped without a serious injury, and the exercise continued with some meaning which would have been lost had Brits been sent off. That the law can be bent to suit the occasion is an issue Steve Walsh may have to deal with at a later date.

Elsewhere the big winners were Welsh players Mike Phillips, who picked up the man of the match award, Toby Faletau and Justin Tipuric.

If Jamie Heaslip is to unseat the Wales No 8 then it will be a huge development, for Warren Gatland rates Faletau very highly. As for Tipuric, we speculated in these pages a few weeks ago that by the time the Test series arrives we might have Paul O'Connell as captain and Tipuric at openside.

Well we got a preview of that yesterday, thanks to Sam Warburton being unfit to start. It remains to be seen how troublesome that knee injury is which is costing him at least the opening two matches.

All things considered, the Lions will hit the ground running when they land in Perth where it will be cooler, and the locals will take more interest.

Irish Independent

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