British and Irish Lions: Blair hopes Scots make mark

Stuart Hogg practices his kicking at the Hong Kong Stadium yesterday. Picture: Getty
Stuart Hogg practices his kicking at the Hong Kong Stadium yesterday. Picture: Getty
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MIKE Blair hoped for a bigger Scotland contingent on this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to Australia – but has urged the trio that did make it to “lay down a marker” in today’s opener against the Barbarians.

Former Scotland captain Blair, who was a late call-up to the Lions tour to South Africa four years ago, believes the likes of prop forwards Euan Murray and Ryan Grant, back rowers Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie, and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw could have made Warren Gatland’s 37-man squad.

However, the 32-year-old, who will join Newcastle Falcons on a two-year deal this summer, admits it is hard to argue with the pool of players chosen for the three-Test series Down Under.

And, as the tour opens with today’s encounter against the Barbarians in the heat of Hong Kong, Blair is now hopeful the threesome who did make the selection – Richie Gray, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg – make the most of being given an early opportunity to impress after being named as starters against the invitational outfit.

Assessing the squad, Scotland’s most-capped scrumhalf said: “For me, Richie Gray was a definite if he was fit. [He] has a subtlety of hand in the off-load that makes him a game breaker and a favourite to start in the second row.

“Stuart Hogg has the confidence and ability to make a real step up in performance and, I can assure you, he won’t be shy in the social environment with the other players.

“He’s so excitable and will learn so much from this tour, like youngsters Keith Earls and Leigh Halfpenny have done in the last four years.

“Sean Maitland might be seen as a bit of a ‘bolter’ – but he has proved in his short time in Scotland, and previously for the Canterbury Crusaders, that he has the temperament and skills to make a real impression.

“I get the feeling with Sean that the bigger the games are the more he will shine. I thought Scotland could have had a bigger representation but the unfortunate thing is that, where Scotland have players of strength, the other nations also do in those positions.”

The Barbarians were defeated 40-12 by England at Twickenham last weekend but have hinted at a more serious approach today after shunning alcohol ahead of the Lions clash.

In his BBC column, Blair added: “The first game will be a really interesting match-up. The Barbarians disappointed versus England last week and, after imposing a booze ban on themselves, will be desperate to make amends.

“In some ways, this game will be easier for them as both teams will have had the same limited preparation time and the Barbarians might even be at an advantage having already played together, although Gatland’s selection cleverly matches familiarity between players in their units, like the centres, back three and back row.

“It’s a great opportunity for players to put their marker down. First impressions last and a good individual performance builds a player’s confidence and momentum for the remainder of the tour.”

The Lions game against the Barbarians will include two water breaks per half due to the prevailing heat and humidity. The opening encounter of the 2013 tour to Australia will be played in forecast temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 F) with humidity levels reaching 90 per cent despite starting at 7:30pm local time.

There will breaks at the 15 and 30-minute mark of both halves for rehydration and application of icepacks.

Soon after arriving in Hong Kong earlier in the week, attack coach Rob Howley had brushed aside calls for water breaks in each half, saying “we want to be put under stress and see how we cope with it.”

But after a first training session in which players lost up to four kilograms, a more pragmatic approach was adopted. Welsh prop Adam Jones said the heat in that first session made him feel ill and was “a shock to the system.”

Months of anticipation will end when Irish lock Paul O’Connell leads the Lions out in the tour opener. He will be at the helm of a starting line-up that includes nine Welshmen, but missing tour captain Sam Warburton who has been rested due to a slight knee ligament problem picked up in training.

Head coach Warren Gatland had stated that moving the ball around will be a key feature as to how the Lions will approach their nine-game tour Down Under including three tests.

The Lions have not won a series since 1997 and the coach was eager to use the Barbarians game to send a message of intent to Australia.

“We want to be positive about the way we play. We want to go and show the Australian public we are capable of moving the ball and scoring lots of points,” Gatland said.

It is only the second time that the Lions and Barbarians have clashed. The previous encounter in 1977 saw the Lions win 23-14.

The Barbarians will be led by Italian powerhouse No 8 Sergio Parisse and will possess a lethal backline including former All Blacks winger Joe Rokocoko and flyhalf Nick Evans who will team up with french scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili.

While Gatland was eager to play expansive rugby, defense coach Andy Farrell said the team had considerable tactical flexibility. “This side can play different styles, we can play a wide 
and expansive game, or play big with powerful contact, or can keep it tight. Whichever way we go, the key will be to adapt to the situation in front of you,” said Farrell. “And we will get our first opportunity to test our systems against the Barbarians, and the tougher it is out there, the better. 
This first game is going to be important.”

Meanwhile, Wales star Mike Phillips is also ready to raise the performance bar in pursuit of the prize that has eluded the Lions since 1997. “The Lions is the ultimate,” Wales and Bayonne scrum-half Phillips said. “You want to play the best and, fortunately for me, I thought I played some of my best stuff [in Lions tour of South Africa, 2009].

“It’s important now we don’t make the same mistakes in this one and we come away with a series win.”