'Lions strong at breakdown and gain line against Barbarians'
Stuart Barnes thought Australia were going to narrowly conquer the Lions. Now he's not so sure...
Last Updated: 04/06/13 11:17am
Those regular Rugby Club viewers will have seen and heard me take the unwelcome (but not irregular) position of pantomime villain, predicting a 2-1 series win for the home side.
Now much as I like (and have some capacity after years of experience) changing horses in midstream, I have to remind viewers that, whilst tipping my head over my heart, there has always been the stated proviso that a lot can happen between pre-tour tipping and Test matches.
The 2-1 verdict was predicated on a series being played as and when the prediction was made. A few weeks on and things have changed.
Some key players appear to be coming to the boil; others are unfortunately heading in the wrong direction from the perspective of their respective coaches.
The Lions negotiated the substantial challenge of the elements and the sadly less-imposing one of the Barbarians with plenty in hand.
As a scene-setter for putting a few training ground patterns into place and finding a solid shape from which they can launch a substantial bid for glory, it could not have been much better.
This may sound surprising. "Has Barnes gone native after spending nearly a week in the same hotel as the squad?" I hear you say.
Well, the manner in which management and players have conducted themselves so far on and off the field has been a credit to them, although the management has had to put long hours into the Lions drinking tradition to cover for a new generation of professional rugby athletes.
So, maybe I am getting a little soft but it was the power of the second-half performance that impressed me most.
Brilliant at the breakdown when they needed to be, experimental and eventually successful at the line out and potent on the gain line; all this and a high level of intensity, Andy Farrell's favourite word of the moment, combined to make the Hong Kong trip a beneficial beginning to the tour.
The players appear to be in great shape. After watching a light session here in Perth, my niggling worry is that line-out throwing could become a problem in need of solving.
Richard Hibbard struggled in admittedly awful throwing conditions, while Rory Best's accuracy disappeared through the Six Nations and Tom Youngs is finding it hard to find his rhythm.
Best and Youngs did a session between themselves and the Leicester man appears to have difficulty putting the throwing body and arm back together. But there is a long way to go and plenty of time for these guys to find their range as long as they find their mental edge.
Other than that the sight of Jamie Roberts, George North and Alex Cuthbert in full stride must have caused Robbie Deans the odd furrow.
Yes, Australia have a great record against Wales and the style of the team is visibly Welsh but when the physical shape of the Welsh lads and the football skills of the Irish come together, something special could brew.
Rob Kearney's fitness is a worry but other than that all is in good shape.
It is a tremendous shame Michael Foley, the Western Force coach, has seen fit to prioritise on his team's final Super Rugby match of the season against the Waratahs than giving the locals a full-strength team to throw the kitchen sink at the Lions. Hopefully there will be stronger challenges ahead of the first Test.
A tour needs meaningful and exciting rugby en route to the Test matches. Australia are already clear that their Test squad will not face the Lions before the series, let us hope the other sides field their best available sides otherwise the tour could become a truncated test series which is not the essence of Lions tours.
Warren Gatland wants tougher matches. It helps harden up the team and make the right selections. The latter point was a substantial factor behind the Lions' first Test loss to South Africa four years ago as Sir Ian McGeechan readily admits the management selected a wrong front row. These are small clouds on what has been a fine looking horizon.
The clouds are darker for the Wallabies. The rugby nation is being drawn up along battle lines in the 'should Cooper play or not' debate.
It is the only question Australian journalists ask me when we meet. The Aussies fear a wrong call here could be their undoing but at least that is in the hands of Deans.
The loss of Scott Higginbotham is a terrible blow and one of those awful, unfortunate things that happen in sport, as 'The Rebel' was back to his blockbusting best and shaping up as a key Wallaby.
He is out of the series while Timani, the Waratahs lock is another weekend injury blow of some proportions. Throw in the doubt surrounding George Smith and Digby Ioane and suddenly the pendulum swings back the way of the Lions. Right now the visitors look the likelier winners but we are still nearly three weeks from the first Test, a lot can happen.
The highlight of the coming week will be the much hyped battle between Quade Cooper and the Lions with some thinking Deans would like the Lions to make it easier to leave the maverick playmaker out by wrecking his game.
Lining up against him will be Sam Warburton. A captain who has missed the first two games will be as keen to make his mark as a certain Queensland ten. It is going to be a riveting week.
So long from Perth and it's gently fading late afternoon sun. Next week I will report back from Newcastle. By then we will be another two matches nearer the Test.
How far will the pendulum swing in the space of the next seven days?
Stuart answers your emails...
Got a question for Stuart? Email him at email@example.com or use the feedback form below...
ROB-BED OF QUALITY?
Morning Stuart, I've just seen the team to play on Wednesday. How big a blow would it be for the Lions if Rob Kearney doesn't recover from his hamstring problem? Worried John, Westmeath
STUART REPLIES: John, Rob is undoubtedly a great player at his best, but the Lions have another full-back whose form has been outstanding all season in Leigh Halfpenny. His goal kicking makes him the favourite for the 15 shirt and with Stuart Hogg bursting with potential one has to say it would be an injury the Lions could certainly survive, although I am desperately hoping the Leinster man has a chance to show his brilliance. I am a big fan but the position makes a sad early departure a more painful blow for the individual rather than the collective.
WHO'S GOT THE POWER?
Hi Stuart, Hope you're enjoying Hong Kong. I wondered how much you know about Western Force back row forward Ben McCalman. Can't say I'm that familiar with him, but with Australia's injury problems mounting it sounds like he could have more of a role to play as the tour progresses. Many people seem to be saying that this could be one of the most physical Lions tours ever. Do you agree and, if so, where does the balance of power lie between the two teams? Cheers, Tim, Billericay
STUART REPLIES: Perth now and it's a little more cool and sedate than HK but I love the energy of the place. McCalman, a tough, grafting forward who will probably be bench at best. The issue is not who is in but who is out. Scott Higginbotham has been immense this season and linking his absence to the question of power, the balance swung the Lions way this weekend but the scales are far from settled yet, Tim.
Hi Stuart, How big a role do you see Mako Vunipola playing on the Lions tour? Will this trip be more of a learning experience for him or can he oust some of his more experienced peers from the starting 15? Thanks, Jackson Thorpe
STUART REPLIES: Jackson, I think Vunipola is going to learn a lot this tour but I do not see him ousting Cian Healy from the Test starting XV but as for the Test bench, that is a distinct possibility if he keeps us his second-half display as witnessed in Hong Kong.
Watch every Lions game live only on Sky Sports. To sign up or upgrade click here.