The Queensland Reds game offered a massive step up to near test-match levels of intensity, if not necessarily the structured game you usually see at that level. Sometimes you do get what you wish for, Warren.
Quade Cooper and his team showed the Western Force what Lions tour matches should be about with a fiery first half in which the Lions had almost nothing their own way, as their absent Wallabies cheered from the sidelines in a refreshing display of club unity that shows rugby union still means something in this part of the world. The only edge they did have was in the set piece – the Reds were down their first choice second rows – and so Queensland kept the set-piece out of it as much as they can. They took tap free kicks at any opportunity, and hoofed the ball into any space they could find.
This meant Stuart Hogg, who was looking for an opportunity to make his name, did more in the first half hour than he did in the whole BaaBaas match. Unfortunately his contribution was mostly scramble defence, fetching balls from deep and clearing the Lions lines. Mostly this he did with his usual confidence despite one or two wobbles. The problem is that the longer the tour goes, the less the real test candidates have even minor wobbles – just look at North, Roberts or O’Driscoll. Owen Farrell made a great break through into the Reds 22 and Hogg was in support but was taken out off the ball. He needed a bit of treatment after that but luckily that coincided with the Lions taking the game on and he had less to do.
Richie Gray meanwhile put himself about with an athletic take or two and some short yardage gains. Never the most elegant looking runner, he’s easy to spot and he was doing plenty of tackling and support work in the first half, as well as providing a commanding target in the lineout for Tom Youngs, who was quite impressive.
Tuilagi only lasted 20 minutes as the Lions midfield reshuffled to accommodate George North; Davies went off near the half hour for blood. The Lions desperately needed structure but the Reds were desperate to deny them it. North was on as an impromptu centre but in the wing channel he made his greatest impact, running the length of the field and combining with Warburton only for the captain to be held up on the line.
The second half saw a bit of drizzle appear to perhaps dampen the Reds ardour for a hectic pace but that was not to be, they kept it up.
By 45 minutes the Lions had used most of their back subs with Sexton and North both on and the backline shuffled further. Players were pulling up requiring leg stretches/rubdowns a lot earlier than you would have hoped (Warburton, Stevens, Sexton). The Lions were in control on the board but the game was a real tester for the squad.
Hogg had little to do save defend, but he did show some resolve to recover and grab a ruck turnover after he’d missed a tackle, followed soon after by a deft clearance kick. Assured, if unspectacular. Gray was in his element in the lineout and a spare back row in the loose, and while he might have enjoyed another team up with O’Connell he did plenty to push his case today.
The ball was properly slippery by this point and the match became a little more disjointed. The main difference had been opportunities in the opposition 22 with most of the match played in the middle of the field. Farrell edged the lead further with a penalty; the Lions were taking their scoring chances, the Reds had fewer despite their ball-playing intent.
The Reds lit up the last 20 minutes with a try from Nick Frisby and as the bench was emptied to shore up the Lions pack, Hogg made a small handling error of the kind that most had made but his was where the fullback exists, out on his own with the enemy hounding him. Jeers; attacking scrum Reds as they sniffed a famous upset. The Lions cleared the danger but deserved or not, that will have been noted as the game ran into the closing moments. He might get more profit in the midweek team which may have a bit more swashbuckling spirit – this gameplan doesn’t get the fullback enough ball, and Halfpenny is the better defender.
A late penalty gave the Lions a chance to kick for goal and put the game to bed. The crowd booed, but the BaaBaas are about adventure; this Lions adventure is about winning.
Impressive: Richie Gray, George North, Tom Youngs