British & Irish Lions
And now to business
June 3, 2013
There will be a sense of relief there were no injuries in the match in Hong Kong and so the full Lions squad will start the business part of the tour in Australia © PA Photos
The Lions players will be breathing a huge sigh of relief. They have all made it on to the plane from Hong Kong to Perth.
Many things have changed but the worst fear for any modern player is exactly the same as it was in my day - injury during the build-up so that, after all the excitement and expectation, you never actually make it to the tour proper. We used to spend a week in Eastbourne and it was hell.
On the one hand you were bonding with guys you were going to be best buddies with for the next three months (even though you had been knocking hell's bells out of them for the previous three months) but you were still desperate to put down a marker to the coach and show that you were 'numero uno.' On the other you were very aware you were not yet on the plane and could be spending the summer back at your job instead of touring Africa or the Antipodes if you took a bang.
It was a horrible dilemma and nobody on this tour would have considered himself a proper Lion if he had not made it to Australia. Nevertheless, despite the conditions and the poor quality of the opposition the match in Hong Kong was invaluable because match time is everything when you have only three weeks in which to finalise your Test team.
It was an impressive victory. In 1971 the only game we lost apart from the second Test in Christchurch was our first game - against Queensland in Brisbane. Fortunately, there were 11 more games before the first Test and we had plenty of time to sort everything out. The 2013 Lions will have just six games before they face the Wallabies in the first Test.
So, Warren Gatland has to tread a fine line. He has vowed to give everybody a chance to claim a Test place but, in reality, he has no time to experiment. He must have a good idea of his starting XV for the first Test even if he cannot admit it.
I was surprised to see an all-Welsh back-row and centre combination starting against the Barbarians. Both worked extremely well but this was an ideal opportunity to try new combinations and he was not really interested - perhaps an indicator to his thinking.
Ian McGeechan was always adamant that part of the secret to success on a Lions Tour was pragmatism - an acceptance that you would never see your team play to its absolute potential because there was simply not enough time. I believe Gatland will follow the same philosophy but this is a very strong Lions squad and he must not be afraid of changing things around if things do not go to plan.
Hong Kong certainly gave us a few pointers. The initial play pattern is very simple - dominate up front, launch the power-runners from the base of the scrum or in mid-field then rely on the very considerable finishing power of the back three to turn pressure into points.
Gatland knows Australia are always a dangerous attacking side even if they have weaknesses up front. They seem to believe this will encourage him to play a conservative kicking game - seeking to win by dominating territorially.
I think he knows he needs to maximise his own attacking potential if the Lions are to win a series for the first time since 1997 and winning the forward battle will not be enough. If Plan A fails there are plenty of options. I cannot see Brian O'Driscoll starting the first Test but, if things go wrong, he can add a new dimension to the attack. I still think his first hour against Wales in the Six Nations was a master class in centre play and his vast experience could still prove decisive.
It will also be fascinating to see how the contest for back-row places develops. Everybody selected has to be in contention for a Test place and the captain, Sam Warburton, is by no means a shoe-in.
The three starters on Saturday all staked an early claim, I think Jamie Heaslip is fresh and raring to prove a point (or two) and Sean O'Brien will relish the challenge but the Test selection will depend on how much the Lions can dominate up front. He might not be brave enough to go for it in the first Test but thereafter I can see Gatland going with two open-sides - Justin Tipuric and Warburton - so they can also control the breakdown. It could be the call that decides the series.
All the Lions who have not yet played should get a run-out in Perth but then Gatland's thinking will quickly become evident. With so little time he will want to play the bulk of his Test team against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday and then play it again against the Waratahs the following weekend.
So, forget the diplomatic double-talk of the next couple of days. Thursday will be the first meaningful selection announcement.
© Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and also the ex-managing director of London Welsh