THE BRITISH and Irish Lions have hardly had to break sweat in their four warm-up matches so far and Saturday’s clash with New South Wales Waratahs looks a good opportunity for Warren Gatland’s men to record another thrashing ahead of bigger challenges Down Under.
On Tuesday the Lions absolutely battered Combined Country XV 64-0 in a match that resembled a training session against committed but, ultimately, outclassed opponents. The tourists racked up 10 tries to better the 69-15 scoreline they achieved against Western Force in Perth last week. That took the Lions’ haul on tour to a total of 214 points, including 28 touchdowns.
While any victory is worth celebrating, it’s clear the management will be more pleased that the side avoided any more injury setbacks. Both Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees and Munster’s talented Ireland winger Simon Zebo have been called into the squad this week as cover. The Lions had already drafted in props Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant following injuries to Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins.
Gatland has mixed up his team in the previous matches to allow everyone a chance to stake their claim for a place in the starting line-up for the first Test against Australia on 22 June, but the New Zealander has named a strong side to play Waratahs.
Zebo, impressive in the Six Nations, is handed an immediate start and Jonny Sexton, who was struggling with a hamstring complaint, has been passed fit to play. Mike Phillips is also in and captain Sam Warburton and fellow flanker Tom Croft will both start only their second game of the tour.
It’s clearly a signal of intent from the manager and you can’t be surprised to see the Lions as short as 1/100 in places to take care of what are vastly inferior rivals. Gatland has criticised the strength of the opposition so far in Australia – with the exception of Queensland Reds who put up a good show in a 22-12 defeat – and will have welcomed the news that the Wallabies have responded to that flak and released flanker Dave Dennis and centre Rob Horne from their squad to play in Sydney on Saturday. Bernard Foley and Matt Lucas of the Australian Sevens camp preparing for the Sevens World Cup at the end of the month will also line-up.
However, that still leaves the New South Wales team without nine of their top players, who are either preparing for the first Test or are on the treatment table, and the Lions should be backed to overcome a -22 handicap at 10/11 with Coral.
Evidently this won’t be a walkover like the games versus Western Force and Combined Country were, but Warburton and his troops have been crying out for a more competitive game to get them into peak shape ahead of what promises to be an epic series against the Aussies.
With a strong looking pack in the shape of Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell, they should stand firm and I’m confident the Lions’ attacking riches can drive them to another handsome win.
England with a -22 handicap at 10/11 with Coral