RICHIE Gray insists he has not boasted “too much” of last year’s win for Scotland against Australia as he prepares to step up his bid for a Test starting jersey when the Lions face Queensland Reds today.
The towering lock forward played a key part in the Scotland team that pulled off a surprise defeat of the Wallabies 12 months ago during a summer tour that also included victories over Fiji and Samoa.
Australia went on to recover from that 9-6 loss in Newcastle to whitewash Wales in a 3-0 Test series triumph, marking out the Scots’ achievement all the more remarkable.
However, Gray, who is joined by international team-mate Stuart Hogg in today’s starting line-up, claims he has not been the one slipping the Scotland success into conversations with his British and Irish Lions colleagues on tour Down Under.
He said: “I’m not going around singing too much. A few guys have asked and I’ve just told them about the game. But I’ve not gone around boasting too much.”
Gray enjoyed a satisfying Lions debut in last weekend’s 59-8 win against the Barbarians in Hong Kong before being left out of Warren Gatland’s side for the comfortable midweek victory over Western Force.
The 23-year-old, who will join French side Castres this summer, was widely perceived to have done his chances no harm of securing a starting place in the team for the first Test on 22 June, with Welsh pair Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones not hitting peak form in the 69-17 victory over the Force.
However, Gray, who missed Scotland’s final two matches of the Six Nations because of a hamstring injury that threatened his involvement with the Lions, is fully aware that today’s encounter with the Reds will present him and his team-mates with another severe examination of their credentials. He added: “It certainly will be a massive test for us. It will test us out, certainly from a defensive point of view.
“So, it will be a tough game but one we want to make improvements in from midweek and keep going on.”
British and Irish Lions assistant coach Rob Howley believes captain Sam Warburton could play a decisive role in the toughest match the tourists have faced so far against the Reds.
Warburton, 24, will become the 800th Lion when he makes his debut against the Quade Cooper-led Super Rugby side at Suncorp Stadium after kicking his heels for the comfortable victories over the Barbarians and Western Force while resting a sore knee. The injured joint remained heavily strapped at practice in Brisbane yesterday but Howley has backed the flanker to make a similar impact today to that he had when Wales hammered England to win the Six Nations earlier this year.
“It’s a proud moment for Sam on Saturday night. It’s probably been a frustrating couple of weeks for him,” said Howley. “As Welshmen, we were all very proud to have Sam as captain of the British and Irish Lions. Sam is a leader by action... and I think you’ll see an ‘A’ game from him tomorrow, like you saw against England in the Six Nations.
“Something we need is pressure on the ball and his combination with Dan Lydiate is going to be a key factor.”
Warburton will start at openside in an all-Welsh back row alongside blindside Lydiate and No 8 Toby Faletau
Owen Farrell will also start and Howley believes playing with his England team-mate Ben Youngs at scrum-half will help him press his claim for the Test No 10 shirt in his duel with Ireland’s Jonny Sexton.
“I was pleased with his overall game management against the Barbarians. I thought his kick-run-pass was very good,” said Howley.
“Again, we’re looking for control of the game, his ability in the decision-making, as you look for in every 10 and 9 in that combination.
“It’ll be good for him to have Ben inside him. It’s a natural combination, they’re used to playing with each other and that can only help our cohesion.”
Warburton said on Thursday that the Lions should “reach for the stars” and aim to go through the tour unbeaten and Howley bristled when it was suggested that was putting too much pressure on the team. “Absolutely not, I think that should be our mantra, we’re coming out here and our intent is to play rugby,” he said.
“You set your standards high and we always have from a Lions perspective. We were undefeated outside the Tests on the last tour in 2009 and it’s important that’s the same because the momentum and confidence just goes to another level.”
Lions could dash Cooper’s hopes of gatecrashing Wallabies squad
THE British and Irish Lions could this morning quash Quade Cooper’s final hope of facing them in a Test series when he was expected to have played an integral role for Australia.
Gifted fly-half Cooper will captain the Queensland Reds against Sam Warburton’s tourists, knowing it his last chance to leave any kind of impression on Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans. Cooper is surprisingly not part of Australia’s preliminary squad for a three-game series that begins back in Brisbane on 22 June.
James O’Connor is understood to have nailed down the number 10 shirt, although a command performance from Cooper in front of a sell-out 52,000 Suncorp Stadium crowd could potentially give Deans some food for thought.
“Quade Cooper has a point to prove,” Lions assistant coach Rob Howley said. “He is a hugely talented player who will be looking to have the ball in his hands as much as possible. It is going to be a tough test. We are delighted they have picked the strongest side they could have done.
“While we stepped up a lot against the (Western) Force on Wednesday, we are under no underestimations about the level we need to hit against the Reds, and that’s good. It is what we need. The quality of the opposition is going to be a test for our defence. Quade Cooper is a hugely talented player. He’s a player who can do anything.
“They obviously want him to have the ball in his hands as much as possible. He will create opportunities for the Reds, there is no doubt about that. We’ve concentrated on our defence because it’s going to be key keeping not only Quade Cooper quiet, but a lot of other players in that Reds team as well.”
Queensland Reds v British & Irish Lions at Suncorp Stadium, today, 10.30am
QUEENSLAND REDS: 15 B Lucas, 14 R Davies, 13 B Tapuai, 12 A Faingaa, 11 L Morahan, 10 Q Cooper (c), 9 N Frisby, 1 B Daley, 2 J Hanson, 3 G Holmes, 4 A Wallace-Harrison, 5 E O’Donoghue, 6 E Quirk, 7 B Robinson, 8 J Schatz. Subs: 16 A Anae, 17 S Denny, 18 J Owen, 19 R Samo, 20 J Butler, 21 J Lance, 22 M Harris, 23 D Shipperley.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: 15 S Hogg (Scotland), 14 A Cuthbert (Wales), 13 M Tuilagi (England), 12 J Davies (Wales), 11 T Bowe (Ireland), 10 O Farrell (England), 9 B Youngs (England), 1 M Vunipola (England), 2 T Youngs (England), 3 M Stevens (England), 4 R Gray (Scotland), 5 G Parling (England), 6 D Lydiate (Wales), 7 S Warburton (Wales) (c), 8 T Faletau (Wales). Subs:, 16 R Hibbard (Wales), 17 D Cole (England), 18 A Jones (Wales), 19 P O’Connell (Ireland), 20 J Tipuric (Wales), 21 C Murray (Ireland), 22 J Sexton (Ireland), 23 G North (Wales)