British and Irish Lions rookie Stuart Hogg has revealed his burning desire to learn from veteran Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll on the current tour of Hong Kong and Australia.
Scotland full-back Hogg is the Lions squad’s youngest player. He does not turn 21 until two days after the first Test in Brisbane and is therefore entrusted with looking after the cuddly toy lion mascot.
“Being with the Lions has been a really good experience,” said Hogg. “On Sunday, Brian O’Driscoll turned up and that was pretty unbelievable because he was my hero growing up. I remember that try he scored for the Lions [against Australia] in 2001. He is someone to look up to for his attitude on and off the field. He’s down to earth and I have a lot of respect for that.
“To have the chance to train and play with him is a dream come true. It’s quite surreal at times. It would be good to have a chat with him and see what he’s got to say. I’m looking to learn during this whole tour, so it’s great to have a guy like that on the trip.
“First and foremost I’ll be looking to learn from Leigh Halfpenny and Rob Kearney in terms of being a 15, but you can learn from everyone.”
Hogg is expected to be on the bench for Saturday’s tour opener against the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium and, after a fortnight’s intense preparation, he is relishing getting going.
“The mood is upbeat and positive,” he added. “Everyone has a smile on their face.
“The Test series in Australia is a massive opportunity to create some history. Our expectations are to win and that is all we are concentrating on.
“It’s not about nationality with the Lions but, at the same time, I am looking to do my country proud. I will do that by playing my best for the Lions.”
Meanwhile, Wales flanker Sam Warburton has received a ringing endorsement of his captaincy credentials.
The Lions’ fifth-youngest skipper in their 125-year history, could miss Saturday’s opener against the Barbarians due to a swollen knee but 1993 Lions skipper Gavin Hastings is excited about his appointment.
Lions coach Warren Gatland will tomorrow announce a starting line-up dominated by Wales players as the serious business begins prior to nine games in Australia, including three Test matches. And Hastings, who also played a starring role during a 2-1 Test series triumph against the Wallabies in 1989, believes Gatland has got his choice of leader spot on.
“He [Warburton] is a guy that played very, very well at the end of the Six Nations and, on his day, he is as good a rugby player as any on these shores,” Hastings said. “He has huge respect among his Wales team-mates. I met the guy once, just after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and I was very, very impressed.
“He is a young man but he’s got a huge amount of experience and I think he will know how to get the best out of the players and will certainly lead by example. As far as I am concerned he is a good choice as captain.”
The Lions have not won a Test series since they toppled then world champions South Africa 16 years ago. On their last visit to Australia in 2001, they emphatically won the opening Test in Brisbane but came unstuck in Melbourne and Sydney, meaning Hastings and company remain the last successful Lions squad down under.
“I wrote on the eve of the final Test, in a diary, that if we were to win I would regard it as significant as our Lions predecessors in 1971 [New Zealand] and 1974 [South Africa], who won,” he added. “And so it proved. In many respects, we are the most unheralded of the Lions tour victories, in 1989. It doesn’t take anything away from the significance of the achievement but, two years later, the majority of that Australian side went on to lift the Rugby World Cup.
“They had some very, very good players who were as talented as any rugby players who have ever played the game. On the eve of every Lions tour I think you are hugely excited, just because of the anticipation of the team hopefully creating history.
“The Lions transcends rugby and goes beyond rugby. Even people who wouldn’t necessarily follow rugby the whole time would pay more than passing attention to a Lions tour.
“It is a bit like being at Lord’s when the Ashes is on. I think people that don’t necessarily follow cricket will want to know about the Ashes.”
Saturday’s matchday 23 will be made up of those players involved at training camps in Wales and Ireland during the past fortnight, with more than a dozen who featured in last Saturday’s English and Celtic league finals gaining their opportunities against Western Force and Queensland Reds next week.
“Warren Gatland has picked very solid, very dependable players,” Hastings said. “That is not a criticism, that’s what he has done. Gatland wants to win this Test series, and he has picked a team and a squad of players that he believes will give him the best chance of victory.”