THE British & Irish Lions romped to a predictably emphatic success against comfortably their weakest Australia tour opponents as they ran in ten tries at Hunter Stadium in Newcastle yesterday.
The Country XV, comprising mostly part-time players who included an electrician, apprentice plumber and a medical student, were inevitably outpaced by a team of elite athletes.
Juggernaut wing George North led the way with two first-half touchdowns, while there were also tries for Alex Cuthbert, Richard Hibbard, Conor Murray, skipper Brian O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien, Stuart Hogg, who impressed in his first outing at stand-off since his school days, Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies. Hogg booted four conversions and Halfpenny three.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland would not have learned a huge amount from the game, building towards Saturday week’s first Test against Australia in Brisbane. There was, though, another eye-catching display by Wales openside flanker Justin Tipuric which could keep some pressure on tour captain Sam Warburton, who is expected to lead the Lions against New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney this weekend.
And the Lions’ backs, featuring a potential first Test three-quarter line of Cuthbert, O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and North, operated with express pace and lightning precision, especially during the first half.
But there were also a number of unforced errors by Lions players, especially when it came to handling under pressure, and, with a little more luck, the Country XV would have scored at least one consolation try.
Questions will inevitably rage about the quality of the Lions’ fourth tour opponents and they have now scored 214 points and 28 tries, being tested only by Queensland Reds last Saturday.
That one-sided scenario should change, though, as the squad head for Sydney tomorrow and then take on the Brumbies in Canberra next Tuesday.
It took the Lions just seven minutes to post their opening try, which followed a spell of sustained pressure and came following a trademark burst from Tipuric. With the Country defence at sixes and sevens, O’Driscoll then had the simple task of putting an unmarked Cuthbert over in the corner.
Scotland’s Hogg, handed the kicking duties instead of rested pair Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, nonchalantly landed the touchline conversion before the Lions added two further touchdowns in three minutes.
Murray claimed the first after more impressive approach work by Tipuric, then Hogg scorched through a huge gap for another touchdown, while one further conversion made it 19-0 after just 12 minutes.
The Country XV enjoyed a spell of pressure deep inside the Lions’ 22, but when Tipuric snaffled turnover ball it led to a thrilling break-out. North fed full-back Sean Maitland 80 metres out and the Scotland international went flat out for the corner before delivering an inside pass to North, who finished. Hogg’s conversion took the Lions 26 points clear.
Despite the scoreline, there was a degree of dogged determination about the largely semi-professional Country side yet, predictably, they had no answer to the Lions’ pace or quality of support play. And further tries followed before the break for Hibbard and North.
Gatland made two half-time substitutions as Halfpenny replaced North, with Maitland switching to the wing, and lock Alun-Wyn Jones took over from Richie Gray. O’Driscoll got the scoreboard moving after half-time when he crossed on a simple overlap, before Halfpenny’s pace took him clear for another touchdown that he also converted to bring up the half-century.
Scotland prop Ryan Grant joined Alex Corbisiero in making his Lions debut when he replaced the England loosehead after 50 minutes, when Gatland also sent on Rory Best for Hibbard and Matt Stevens instead of Dan Cole.
And, when centre Davies took over from Roberts, it meant only scrum-half Mike Phillips had not left the Lions bench with more than 20 minutes remaining.
Phillips then arrived, but the final quarter only saw two more tries from the tourists, O’Brien powering over before Davies claimed the final score. Halfpenny converted on each occasion.
Scorers: Lions – Tries: North (2), Cuthbert, Hibbard, Murray, O’Driscoll, O’Brien, Hogg, Halfpenny, Davies. Cons: Hogg (4), Halfpenny (3).
NSW-Queensland Country: Trist; Gibbon, Catt, Siakisini, Cox; Roberts, Snowden; Hirsimaki, Mann-Rea, Metcher, Battye, Enever, Stanford, Butler, Davidson. Replacements: Kearney, Evans, Abraham, Arnold, Dyer, McCormack, McCarthy, Ah-Wang.
British & Irish Lions: Maitland; Cuthbert, O’Driscoll, Roberts, North; Hogg, Murray; Corbisiero, Hibbard, Cole, Gray, Evans, O’Brien, Tipuric, Heaslip. Replacements: Best, Grant, Stevens, A Jones, Faletau, Phillips, Davies, Halfpenny.