We’re just over a week away from the opening fixture of the British & Irish Lions’ tour of Australia, a warm up game on their Hong Kong stopover against the Barbarians. This year sees the shortest gap ever between the end of the northern hemisphere season and the start of a Lions tour, whilst for the Australians the fixtures come midway through a season that is already taking its toll on their players.
Although the Lions named their 37 player squad back at the start of the month, the true make-up of the party won’t be revealed until after this weekend, when their Leinster, Ulster, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints players finally finish their season. For that reason, you are unlikely to find many - if any - of them in the 23 named to face the Baa-Baas. At the same time, coach Warren Gatland will be watching those games through his fingers, hoping that none of ‘his’ players get injured and ruled out of the tour.
On that front there have already been scares, with Leinster pair Sean O’Brien and Brian O’Driscoll struggling with injuries. The biggest concern here is O’Driscoll, who is a shoe in to start the first Test at outside centre if fit, but who missed Leinster’s win in the Amlin Challenge Cup last Friday with a back injury picked up in the Pro12 semi-finals the weekend before. At the age of 34 it seems that his powers of recovery, never as great as many presumed them to be anyway, are no longer good enough to make him a guaranteed starter every week, which in itself will create problems for the Lions if he picks up knocks in the Tests.
The situation with O’Brien is less severe, as he already faced stiff competition from Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft for the blindside flanker’s berth anyway. However, losing a player before the tour even starts is never good for morale and O’Brien’s speed over the ground may be influential on the harder Australian surfaces.
The Lions’ travails are nothing compared to those of their hosts, though. They already knew that captain David Pocock would be missing, having picked up a season-ending injury a while back, but last weekend the Super XV clash between NSW Waratahs and ACT Brumbies saw two of their best players ruled out of the Lions series. Hooker Tatafu Polata-Nau and flanker George Smith were both poised to start the first Test - Smith in place of Pocock - and although Smith might make it back for the third game he will have played very little rugby for two months by then.
The Australians also named a squad which omits two of their best fly halves. Kurtley Beale’s absence was predicted, as he is receiving treatment for a variety of personal problems, but leaving out Quade Cooper is a gamble. He and the Australian management haven’t seen eye-to-eye since he called them out during the last World Cup, but he has been in good form recently and his omission means that the only Number 10 currently in the squad (although up to six more players can be added to it between now and the first Test) is James O’Connor, who has won only one cap in that position and who has spent almost his entire Australian career on the wing.
With all of these problems in the home camp it is no surprise that the Lions remain odds on favorites to win the Test series, with a best price of 8/11 through Paddy Power. Australia are 11/8 at Bet365, which is more attractive because, injuries and omissions aside, they will still be hard to beat at home. Bet365 also have the hosts at 5/2 to win the series 2-1, whilst those who look to back a 3-0 Lions win with their sports picks should remember that the last time that happened was in 1927, when they toured Argentina, a place still to become a world rugby power.