In a few hours’ time the 2013 British and Irish Lions will face the New South Wales Waratahs. This should be their second proper challenge of their tour, after their easy 64-0 win over the Combined Country side of semi-professionals on Tuesday. Of the four matches they’ve played so far, only the Queensland Reds last Saturday have given them any real opposition. With only a week to go before the first Test between the Lions and Australia, today’s game provides a vital chance for the Lions’ coaching staff to try out possible Test combinations.
The Lions’ starting 15 includes many of the players expected to start in the first Test, including the half-back pairing of Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton, and the second-row pairing of Paul O’Connel and Alun Wyn Jones. However, there are a few players not playing today whom everyone expects to be in next Saturday’s test team, including Brian O’Driscoll, who misses out today because of a groin strain.
Today’s match also gives Lions’ captain Sam Warburton a chance to improve his match fitness and to show Gatland and the other coaches that he should start in next Saturday’s Test. Unfortunately for Warburton, not only did he miss the first three matches of the tour through injury, but several of his fellow back row forwards are in superb form, including fellow Welshman Justin Tipuric. Many people feel Warburton may not even make the starting line-up next Saturday. I cannot remember the last time the tour captain failed to make the Test team. Whether Warburton does start next Saturday will, I suspect, partly depend on how well he plays today.
The Lions will have another possibly tough match on Tuesday against the ACT Brumbies, but with only 5 days between that match and Saturday’s test, the coaching team may feel they need to rest most (all?) of the likely Test 15 (and many of the 8 replacements). But they also want to go into Saturday’s 1st Test with an unbeaten record, so Gatland and his coaching team have to get the balance right.