Five matches down and five wins for Britain’s rugby elite. The first half of the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour was promising to say the least, although there are a few areas in which the squad need to improve if they are to challenge Australia fully at the end of the month.

North bound | British and Irish Lions winger George North, scores one of two tries against the Queensland-New South Wales Country XV. (Image | The BBC)

North bound | British and Irish Lions winger George North, scores one of two tries against the Combined Country XV. (Image | The BBC)

British and Irish Lions 58 Barbarian FC 9

The tour kicked off in sweltering conditions in Hong Kong on Saturday, June 1. Facing a slightly stronger Barbarians side than other recent incarnations of the invitation team, the Lions nonetheless outclassed their opponents.

With humidity reaching nearly 95 per cent, requiring the game to be stopped during each half for water and cold-water fan breaks, the Lions showed that their fitness levels were more than up to the test.

Tries from Paul O’Connell and Mike Phillips, and three penalties from the boot of Owen Farrell, saw them lead 23-3 at half time. Phillips was in exceptional form all match, and scored another solo effort after the break.

Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i managed to reply, but that was as much of a look in as the Barbarians would get in the second half, tries for Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones and a brace from Alex Cuthbert earning the tourists a convincing win.

Victory in this match was essential if the side were to gain momentum heading to Australia, and so regardless of the underwhelming opposition they will have been relieved to get off to a winning start

This is especially true as some of the stronger players were yet to arrive, having been rested after the conclusion of their domestic leagues.

While the actual performance was far from polished, this was to be expected from the first match as players from various countries played alongside each other for the first time.

Lions 69 Western Force 17

The first game played on Australian soil saw a similarly dominant performance to the first. Western Force put in a spirited display in Perth, but their starting line-up was weaker even than the usual XV that has left them languishing near the bottom of the Super 15 this year.

Early on, the hosts’ inexperience was exposed, as Leinster fly half Jonathan Sexton sliced through the defence after 11 minutes to go over untouched under the posts. The Lions had to fight for a foothold to push on, with some of the new combinations, particularly centre pairing Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll, not clicking straight away.

However, it was the legendary Irishman that helped his side on their way after half an hour, taking an offload from George North to score in the corner. Leicester flanker Tom Croft then added another to make the half-time score 27-3.

The Lions began to play far more clinically in attack in the second half, and ultimately used their power to pull away from the Force. Tries for Jamie Heaslip, Mako Vunipola, Tommy Bowe, Farrell, Geoff Parling and a second for O’Driscoll, as well as 11 kicks from 11 for the sublime Leigh Halfpenny, made for a comfortable final scoreline. The home side managed a pair of their own, scored by Richard Brown and Lachlan McCaffrey.

Western Force were criticised in the run up to the match for fielding a sub-par side in order to concentrate on their weekend clash with the New South Wales Waratahs, but the decision actually benefited the visitors.

Head coach Warren Gatland was allowed free rein to try out some experimental combinations in the line-up, while the team themselves were able to tweak a potentially average defensive scheme.

Less positive was a tour-ending injury to a probable test prop, Irishman Cian Healy. However, Vunipola filled in admirably and London Irish’s Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant, of Glasgow Warriors, have been flown in to supplement the front row.

Lions 22 Queensland Reds 12

By far the biggest challenge of the tour to date came on Saturday, May 8 against the Queensland Reds, one of the better club sides the Lions will face.

Unlike Western Force they played a strong team featuring Wallaby stars Quade Cooper and Anthony Fainga’a and two of the best attacking threats in Southern Hemisphere club rugby in wings Rod Davies and Luke Morahan.

From the off, the Lions were under pressure, as the Reds demonstrated their pace and power in attack, catching their opposition off guard. Only a last-ditch tackle by fullback Stuart Hogg prevented a try after just a couple of minutes, and the visitors had to clear their lines more than once.

Grinning penalties | Owen Farrell kicked five penalties to help the Lions to victory over the Queensland Reds. (Image | The Telegraph)

Grinning penalties | Owen Farrell kicked five penalties to help the Lions to victory over the Queensland Reds. (Image | The Telegraph)

Farrell opened the scoring after 14 minutes with a penalty, but this was quickly cancelled out by a breathtaking solo try from Monahan, who stepped out of several tackles on his way to the line: a worryingly poor defensive effort from the tourists.

However, Farrell helped them to claw their way back into the match with a further penalty before scrum-half Ben Youngs gathered fortuitously from a disintegrating scrum to score the Lions’ only try of the match. The visitors led 16-6 at half time, but found themselves under pressure again as Nick Frisby scored a second try for the hosts.

In the end, though, it was not enough as two more Farrell penalties secured a 22-12 victory. North came off the bench to give the stand-out performance of the match, out of position at centre, while squad captain Sam Warburton had a decent first game in charge.

This game unearthed a couple of worrying trends for the tourists. Firstly, their defence was nowhere near the intensity that will be required to keep Australia’s fearsome back line at bay. In particular, Gatland will need to select a back row that can work as a unit in open play.

Secondly, the rate at which their players were picking up injuries needs to be curbed if they are to field a full-strength team for the test matches. Bowe could be missing for two weeks with a broken hand, while prop Gethin Jenkins was ruled out following a scan. Tuilagi also departed during the game, and is another doubt ahead of the Wallabies match.

Lions 64 Combined Country XV 0

By far the Lions’ easiest win so far came against the Combined Country XV last Tuesday. Fielding mostly amateur players from the Queensland and New South Wales region, the opposition were not particularly strong, but nonetheless put in a committed effort for what was essentially a “gimme” match for the tourists.

That did not stop the hosts conceded at a rate of almost a point per minute in the first half, Cuthbert scoring his third of the series, Conor Murray following with a second and Stuart Hogg enjoying a score in his first start at fly half.

Hooker Richard Hibbard drove over from a lineout before North added a further two to ensure a 38-0 lead at the break.
Second-half tries for O’Driscoll, Halfpenny, Sean O’Brien and Jonathan Davies meant the visitors came away with another convincing win, although they were let down at times by carelessness.

In particular, their handling skills lapsed when the pressure was off, something that cannot happen against the Wallabies. Nevertheless, Gatland will doubtless be happy with the fact that none of his players came away injured from this game, while his experimentation on the pitch opened up a pair of new options.

Scotland fullback Hogg controlled the game well at fly half, and while Sean Maitland was not outstanding at fullback, he was at least reliable. Both players can now be considered reserves for the two positions where the Lions only have two specialist players, allowing cover for the bench should any of the probable test starters at 10 or 15 suffer an injury.

Lions 47 Waratahs 17

Saturday saw the Lions’ best performance of the tour against one of the stronger Australian club sides, who are currently two points off a play-off wild card spot in the Super Rugby table. Yet they more than rose to the challenge, thanks to superb displays from Halfpenny and Davies, and new recruit Simon Zebo.

Zebo came close to opening the scoring within the first minute of his Lions debut, only being denied by a Drew Mitchell tackle in the corner. Halfpenny then got the tourists off the mark with a penalty, before charging down a kick to set up Sexton for the opening try.

Waratahs centre Tom Carter responded following some suspect defending by the Lions, but another penalty from Halfpenny and a try for the Welsh fullback lent the half-time score a more comfortable look, at 23-10.

Halfpenny and Carter then exchanged tries shortly after the break, before the visitors pushed on beyond the reach of the hosts. Halfpenny added his third penalty before Davies intercepted to set up Tom Croft for a fourth try. Davies then added one of his own late in the game to seal the victory.

A week away from the first test match, the Lions finally came together and began to look like a side that could challenge, and maybe even beat, Australia. Their intensity in attack was relentless throughout the match, and while defensively they were at fault for conceding the two tries, the Lions are improving overall.

Losing two attacking rucks out of 95 is a fantastic effort from the forwards, while missing 12 tackles out of 117 shows that defensively they are well on the way to being able to hold out the Wallabies’ formidable attack.

One more warm-up match follows, against the ACT Brumbies, the best team in Super Rugby this year, before the first test in Brisbane on Saturday. Jamie Roberts will probably not play, having gone off injured against the Waratahs, but Davies put in a strong claim with his performance.

Legendary Wales winger Shane Williams, his nation’s record try-scorer, but now playing his club rugby in Japan, has been called out of international retirement to join the tour, while England youngsters Christian Wade, Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees will join as further attacking options.

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