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Preview: Western Force v B&I Lions

Tue, 04 Jun 2013 08:15
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The B&I Lions do enjoy playing in Perth

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Now the tour starts for real. Yes, the British and Irish Lions encountered some token resistance in Hong Kong at the weekend, when a haphazard and indisciplined Barbarians team capitulated.

However, this is the real deal and unlike previous trips Down Under, the Lions will meet with much tougher opposition in their midweek and other tour matches.

The B&I Lions do enjoy playing in Perth.

In four previous games in the Western Australian capital they have reaped 291 points down the years - going back almost 80 years - and on their last visit they plundered 18 tries in a 116-10 victory.

But their proud unbeaten record is likely to face a much bigger challenge than ever before in the opening fixture on Australian soil when they face the first of five Super Rugby franchises.

No longer will there be easy pickings from a newly assembled Western Australian XV.

The Western Force will come into the game battle-hardened after 14 Super Rugby matches, buoyed from a win over the Highlanders in their last fixture and rested after a week off.

The Force, who will back up four days later for their Week 17 Super Rugby fixture against the Waratahs, are determined to finally claim a Lions scalp.

Force coach Michael Foley says the tight schedule is a unique challenge, but provides an exciting opportunity for his players.

"The British & Irish Lions tour represents a special occasion for the players involved and everyone was keen to put their hands up for selection," he said.

"From the outset we recognised the need to approach this week as an entire squad. To that end, every available member of our squad, a number from our wider training group, and club players from Perth and elsewhere will get opportunities against the Lions and Waratahs.

"We've included some of our most experienced players to provide leadership against a Lions squad we have a great deal of respect for.

"The effort in training over the past week has shown how much Wednesday's match means to this squad and they'll be determined against many of the best international players from the Northern Hemisphere."

Brian O'Driscoll, who will lead the Lions in Perth in the ongoing absence of injured tour captain Sam Warburton, says reputation will count for nothing in Australia.

The 34-year-old centre will become just the third player to have featured on four Lions tours.

O'Driscoll has become one of the world's leading lights over his stellar 14-year international career, but he insists that doesn't hold any weight when it comes to earning a Test spot against the Wallabies later this month.

"Reputations don't count for anything," said O'Driscoll, who saw Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts produce standout performances in midfield in last Saturday's win over the Barbarians.

"We're very, very strong in the centre.

"The two boys played well in very difficult conditions. Now the baton is passed to myself and Manu [Tuilagi] to try and stake our claim."

That claim begins in Perth when The Lions take on Australia's westernmost franchise, with O'Driscoll wearing No.13 and Tuilagi No.12 in a partnership that, from the outside at least, appears to combine brains with brawn.

But O'Driscoll insists that his midfield colleague offers far more than just a physical threat and he expects that to become apparent when the 22-year-old makes his Lions debut this week.

"It's a very exciting prospect playing with him. He's got a really good range to his game," added O'Driscoll.

"People see the strong ball-carrier in him and destructive tackler when he makes contact, but he has an array of skills that probably don't get the credit they deserve.

"It's definitely an exciting feeling partnering him and I'm looking forward to our first outing."

O'Driscoll's aim in that first outing is to continue the momentum built in Hong Kong at the weekend and to ensure The Lions hit their straps early on in OZ.

He knows better than most that starting strongly is vital if the tourists are to have any chance of claiming a first series success since 1997 and if he is to have any chance of playing a major part in that triumph.

"You tend not to be able to tip away and then get to the Test series and be phenomenal - that's a rarity.

"You've got to really work towards building your game plan, building your defensive system, building your picking game and all the different dimensions of your game so that, when you do get to the Tests, they're at a very high level and you're able to try and kick it on to the next level.

"That's very difficult if you're stuttering and starting in the first five or six games."

Players to watch:

For the Western Force: You simply can't look past the players with Test experience, they are the men that must bring the hard edge that will test the Lions - captain Matt Hodgson, prop Salesi Ma'afu, No.8 Richard Brown, scrumhalf Brett Sheehan and flyhalf Sam Norton-Knight. Former All Black Alby Mathewson will start from the bench.

For the British and Irish Lions: It is all about laying down markers and challenging for places in the Test team. That means all 22 will be in the spotlight. However, that spotlight will shine brightest on the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Brian O'Driscoll (captain), Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Tom Croft, Alun Wyn Jones,  while late addition Rory Best could be the fairytale story of the tour.

Head to head: There are interesting contests all over the park, but with Australian scrums notoriously poor the first place where the Lions will attack is in the set pieces - with Salesi Ma'afu, James Hilterbrand and Salesi Manu (Western Force) certain to come under pressure from Dan Cole, Rory Best and Cian Healy (B&I Lions). And in the midfield Ed Stubbs and Chris Tuatara-Morrison (Western Force) will have to bring their A-game on defence against Brian O'Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi (B&I Lions).

Previous results:
These teams have never met before. Previously the B&I Lions tourists played Western Australian sides.
2001: B&I Lions won 116-10
1989: B&I Lions won 44-0
1966: B&I Lions won 60-3
1930: B&I Lions won 71-3

Prediction: It is not a case of who will win, it is a matter of by how much the British and Irish Lions will win their tour opener. Yes, the Western Force are a hardy bunch, but the B&I Lions are not the haphazard Highlanders they encountered in their last outing. They may hold first for the first hour, but in the end the B&I Lions should ease clear - by 15 points or more.

Teams:

Western Force: 15 Sam Christie, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Ed Stubbs, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Corey Brown, 10 Sam Norton-Knight, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8  Richard Brown, 7 Matt Hodgson (captain), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Phoenix Battye, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 James Hilterbrand, 1 Salesi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Sione Kolo, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Ben Matwijow, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Nick Haining, 23 Junior Rasolea.

British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 George North, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Toby Faletau, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sean Maitland.

Date: Wednesday, June 5
Venue: Patersons Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 18.00 (11.00 BST time; 10.00 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be mostly cloudy, but virtually no prospect of rain. With a high of 20°C and a low of 14°C it should be [perfect weather for an entertaining game.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
TMO: TBC (New Zealand)

Additional reporting: lionsrugby.com

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