British & Irish Lions 64-0 NSW Queensland Combined Country XV
Richie Gray, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg all impressed in their latest outing for the British and Irish Lions vs Combined Country earlier today. The opposition was undeniably the weakest the Lions will face on tour, but the Lions gave a first half performance that put the game to bed early on.
Gray only played a half, having been well-used so far on tour (with good reason) and clearly playing his way back into good form. His partner Ian Evans and replacement Alun Wyn Jones were more in need of game-time, having done little until tonight to suggest that Parling or Gray won’t be partnering Paul O’ Connell in the second row a week on Saturday. Evans did well, but Gray and O’Connell still looks like the second row to me, and he did enough tonight to state his case once again. Ryan Grant made only a small cameo, but he made himself available for work and a big game on Saturday could throw him into contention.
The much-discussed Hogg was making his first start at fly-half at this level, indeed his first start at fly-half since playing there for Hawick so it was doubly pleasing to see such an assured debut. He took the ball flat and at pace, distributed well and kicked with the usual power. His pace and quick feet can be a real asset when he’s thinking faster than the defenders as was shown for his excellently taken try, carving a nice line through the midfield and scurrying for the line. Halfpenny took on the goal-kicking when he came on but till that point Hogg showed that facet of his game is equally useful with 4 from 5. Whether he would be as comfortable against a Wallaby pack that would clearly target his defence remains to be seen, but his versatility makes him useful off the bench in a test.
Another versatile Scot, Sean Maitland has not had the easiest tour so far with the big Welsh wings tending to outshine him and he needed a big game tonight from full back. While Hogg had to do endless tidying up in the 15 shirt, Maitland had a much easier time, allowing him to unleash his deceptively languid sprinting style in some impressive attacking runs. The 14 carries he made for the highest total distance of 166m put him at the centre of practically every Lions attack or counter attack, combining very well with George North. He may not have picked up a try on a night when the Lions scored ten, but he selflessly provided the scoring pass for at least three of them.
There are now some real tough calls in the back row especially at 8 but for me now one of the hardest berths to call is 14. With Bowe unlikely, Maitland’s big competitor for the test 14 shirt is Alex Cuthbert. The Welshman has had mixed form but loads of tries and being Welsh in his favour which may put him ahead in the peggings, but there was no doubt who looked the classier act tonight. Perhaps a trick was missed today when Halfpenny came on. For me there is still room for him and Hogg in the team and it may have been an idea to get the Welshman some time at 14 while Maitland was coping so admirably.
What was also refreshing that in a second half that was error strewn, the Scots on the park – by this point Ryan Grant had made his Lions debut in the stadium where he got his first cap – were not the ones doing the bumbling knock-ons for once. The Sky pundits suggested it may have been due to unfamiliarity with the bench that caused these big names problems, but despite some clear test starters in place already, no-one should have that expectation and focus accordingly. Good to see the Scots being team players.
Hogg had missed a few tackling opportunities rushing out of the line but none of them was crucial. Maitland was charged down early in the game – laid back for sure – but other than that, the Scottish Lions contingent can be pretty happy.