THIS Lions tour has been a success both on and off the pitch so far, but make no mistake, the Tests against the Wallabies will be a massive step up.
The early results have probably been due to a combination of two factors: the excellent attitude shown by the tourists, and I suppose the relative lack of quality of the opposition. Head coach Warren Gatland has some very experienced players in his squad - and that goes for the coaching team too - and that experience is going to be absolutely fundamental to the success of this Lions tour.
The players and management, and the supporters, have all bought into the idea of the Lions and what they represent. As a player, you recognise that playing for the Lions is the highest honour you can get, and you have to justify that honour every time you put on the jersey.
There is no doubt that the strength in depth in New Zealand and South Africa is greater than it is in Australia, and that showed last Wednesday. The Queensland Reds at the weekend were obviously tougher opponents - in fact I would suggest they will be the strongest opponents outwith the Tests - so I expect the Lions to go undefeated into that first Test a week on Saturday.
Having said that, Saturday’s match against the Waratahs and then next Tuesday’s game against the Brumbies will both be tough. Those two teams will be extremely keen to put pressure on the Lions going into the Test series, and for them that ideally means pulling off what would be an unlikely victory.
But it is clear that the Lions have gelled very quickly on the field, and importantly, everyone seems to be enjoying each other’s company. There has been no negative publicity and that kind of harmony within the camp always bodes well for results on the field.
Before those games, of course, we have this morning’s match against the combined New South Wales and Queensland Country side, and I have been really intrigued by some of the selections made by Gatland in all the games so far. I think he has been quite clever in managing some of the combinations he has chosen and mixing things up and keeping his players honest. Now we have Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts paired together, and on the wings, where he has gone with Alex Cuthbert and George North.
On present form and with another good game today it would not be unreasonable to expect that four to be in the starting XV for the first Test. There is no way that those four will play today and then again on Saturday, and they are not going to play in the last game before the Test either.
Jonathan Davies is the one man who may threaten that O’Driscoll-Roberts partnership, but those two played so well together in South Africa four years ago that they may be pretty hard to dislodge. Gatland must be getting pretty close to finalising his team for the first Test, but i do think there are a few places still up for grabs.
From a Scottish point of view, of course, the fascinating selection today is that of Stuart Hogg at No 10. As he has the kicking duties as well, there will be a hell of a lot of pressure on Hogg, although the fact he has been working with kicking coach Neil Jenkins over these past few weeks will have helped.
I don’t think that Gatland will consider Hogg at stand-off for the Tests, although given his versatility he may force his way on to the bench. Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton are being rested today, and I expect them to be in the squad for the first Test - probably with Sexton starting and Farrell on the bench,
There was a lot of talk before the tour began about Jonny Wilkinson, and how he was going to be drafted in by Gatland the minute his French club season finished. All such speculation about Wilkinson was effectively ended for good at the weekend when he announced he had had groin surgery which would keep him out of action for a few weeks.
But even before that news, I am convinced that Wilkinson was never seen as more than a back-up option to be considered in the event of injury. Certainly, he is now yesterday’s man as far as the Lions are concerned,
So Hogg will be absolutely relishing the opportunity he has today to show what he can do. I think the coaches will have told him not to play too conservative a game, and if he thinks something is on, he should feel free to try and run the ball out of defence.
And it is an opportunity he totally deserves, He has shown exemplary courage and commitment for the Lions, as he does when he plays for Scotland, and it will be exciting to see what he can achieve in a more pressurised environment.