ALL three Scots in the British and Irish Lions squad have been given an early opportunity to impress after Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray were named the starting line-up for the tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
After six months’ planning and three weeks’ training, coach Warren Gatland finally begins his Lions adventure against the invitational side to open the 125th anniversary tour.
Ahead of three Tests and six provincial games in Australia, the Lions are making their first appearance in Hong Kong, where the city’s intense heat and humidity will play a key factor. As expected, Gatland chose no starters who were involved in European or English league finals last weekend. That means the first side is dominated by Welshmen, nine starting and two more in the reserves. The matchday 23 includes five Irishmen and four Englishmen in addition to the three Scots.
“I don’t really care about style as long as we win, to be honest,” Gatland told a news conferenceyesterday.
In the absence of captain Sam Warburton, who is nursing a swollen knee, Irish lock Paul O’Connell, captain in South Africa four years ago, will again lead the Lions.
Three of Warburton’s Welsh compatriots will fill the back row, with another six players from the Six Nations champions in the starting XV.
“Obviously I’m disappointed for Sam but there’s no better man to captain the side than Paul O’Connell,” said Dan Lydiate, who will play on the blindside flank. Scotland lock forward Gray will play his first match since suffering a hamstring injury on 9 March.
Owen Farrell will start at stand-off, outside Mike Phillips, one of the stand-out performers of the 2009 tour.
Temperatures are expected to hit 33°C but O’Connell said: “We’re getting used to it already. It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. We both have to deal with it and hopefully we can deal with it better than they can.”
Eleven players will be making their first appearances in the famous red jersey and Gatland added: “We have a lot of players making their debuts. But at the same time we have a hard core of experience, with six former Lions sharing 430 caps between them and 19 Lions Tests.”
Scotland and Lions legend Andy Irvine, who is tour manager, said: “Training has gone very well and it is exciting to see 11 players making their debuts for the Lions, including the tour’s youngest player Stuart Hogg.”
Facing Barbarians, Hong Kong Stadium 15 S Hogg (Scotland)
14 A Cuthbert (Wales)
13 J Davies (Wales)
12 J Roberts (Wales)
11 S Maitland (Scotland)
10 O Farrell (England)
9 M Phillips (Wales)
1 M Vunipola (England)
2 R Hibbard (Wales)
3 A Jones (Wales)
4 R Gray (Scotland)
5 P O’Connell (Ireland, capt)
6 D Lydiate (Wales)
7 J Tipuric (Wales)
8 T Faletau (Wales)
T Youngs (England), C Healy (Ireland),
M Stevens (England), A W Jones (Wales), J Heaslip (Ireland), C Murray (Ireland),
J Sexton (Ireland), G North (Wales)