I HAVE been visiting Hong Kong regularly since 1986, and had never before experienced heat like Saturday’s.
The humidity was incredible – it felt like you were standing in a sauna.
It was the hottest day of the year, and although by the time the Lions-Barbarians match kicked off the sun had gone down, that strength-sapping humidity was still there. The amount the players were perspiring made ball-handling very difficult, and I’m sure that in more benign conditions a few more passes would have gone to hand.
It was a unique challenge, and the squad will be pleased to have won well, with the 59-8 final score giving a fair indication of the way they dominated the game. But they, and in particular tour doctor James Robson, will also be relieved to have got through the match without any injuries.
There was some comment after the game to the effect that conditions were too tough, and a few suggestions that the game had only taken place because of sponsors’ requirements. It was a decision taken by the Lions, and for rugby-based reasons.
As head coach Warren Gatland said, being based in Hong Kong for the initial few days was quite a good way of integrating the squad, some of whom hardly know each other, and one or two of whom only arrived in the couple of days before the game. Perhaps more significantly, the fact is that Australia could only guarantee nine matches – and the Lions wanted to have a total of ten, to allow them to have six games before the first Test.
The rugby authorities in Hong Kong were very pleased with the way the game went, and may even hope to bid again for the opening match of future tours. But, while I’m convinced it was a useful exercise, I’m not convinced it should be repeated any time soon: apart from anything else, both South Africa and New Zealand have greater strength in depth and playing numbers than Australia, so they would be able to guarantee the tourists that extra game they wanted.
Gatland has said he plans to give every member of his squad some game time over the first three matches, and I’m sure when they saw the conditions a lot of the guys who were left out on Saturday were pretty pleased they had not been picked for the opener. But I think those who were picked acquitted themselves well, and that includes all three Scots, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray. It was just a shame for Maitland that he didn’t take the opportunity to score a try, but it was a difficult bouncing ball, and apart from that moment I think he had an encouraging start to his Lions career. Gray played throughout the 80 minutes and Hogg had a few good touches as well, so I’m pretty sure that none of them did their chances any harm. I expect Hogg, in particular, will be busy on the bench over the next few matches.
I’m pretty sure that in an ideal world Warren Gatland will know the team he would like to pick for the first Test. But there are several conditions he would attach before that ideal becomes reality.
First, everyone he would ideally pick has to be fit to play – and we know from past experience the number of injuries that a squad can pick up even before the start of the Test series.
Second, every member of that ideal XV has to be playing well enough. And third, there is always a chance that someone who is not in the coach’s hypothetical team can play so well that he forces himself into consideration.
We may have to accept that it is unlikely, as things stand, that any of the three Scots has been pencilled in to the Test team. But I’m convinced that each of them is capable of coming into that third condition, and forcing his way into serious consideration by the coaching staff.
After that resounding victory in Hong Kong, there will be no doubt that the Tour has got under way in earnest when the first match in Australia kicks off in Perth tomorrow. Squad captain Sam Warburton has been left out of the team again for the game against Western Force, which I presume means he will play against the Queensland Reds on Saturday.
Warburton has been injured, but the medical staff seem pretty sure that he will be fit to play. The only question really for Gatland to answer where Warburton was concerned was whether to stick by that intention of playing everyone in the first three games, or whether he should have played Warburton tomorrow, then perhaps have given him ten days’ rest before selecting him again for the game against New South Wales a week on Saturday.
The massive interest in the Lions that there is these days means that the players will not have a lot of free time to wander around or go sightseeing, but that is something they will have to learn to live with.
Touring is a serious business these days, and it can work better for a lot of players if they don’t have too much time on their hands. I’m sure, in any case, that the Australians will be doing their damnedest to disrupt preparations, so that’s probably another reason why it’s best not to have too much free time.
It’s a pretty tight schedule anyway. The first Test is only a fortnight on Saturday, and that will help concentrate minds on the task ahead.
• Gavin Hastings is an HSBC ambassador. HSBC is proud Principal Partner to the 2013 British & Irish Lions on their Tour to Australia. The Legendary Journey continues. Follow The Lions’ Legendary Journey at youtube.com/LionsHSBC