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Preview: Force v Lions

04th June 2013 12:19

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On the run: Conor Murray

All changed from their win over the Barbarians, the British and Irish Lions next face the Western Force in Perth on Wednesday.

An entirely new starting XV hands those who sweated on the sidelines in Hong Kong the chance to lay down their marker.

Six new players will make their first appearances in a Lions shirt including England centre Manu Tuilagi, who partners the most experienced Lion in the squad in midfield alongside Brian O'Driscoll.

Others including Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and George North will make their first starts in the red jersey after coming off the bench last Saturday.

Much has been made of whether the stop-off in Hong Kong was of any benefit to the Lions, and the answer overall is probably negative.

That they emerged with no injuries is a blessing for Dr James Robson and his medical team, but the effects of the energy-sapping stint will only really be known over the next few weeks. Either the Lions prepared well for adversity by starting off with a gruelling challenge, or the exhaustive effects will come back to haunt them later in the tour.

From a playing perspective there was plenty to be positive about. Owen Farrell struggled trying to distribute the ice cube and let his blood boil in the only concerning performance.

The set-piece was accurate and the Welsh contingent of Mike Phillips, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies all shone.

Wednesday is about the rest of the squad playing catch-up and the development of some exciting combinations.

A back-three of Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe and George North is regarded by many as the Test group, although Alex Cuthbert is applying pressure. O'Driscoll and Tuilagi make for a fascinating combination, but only if they can find the same wavelength.

Irish familiarity at half-back steadies the ship as does the all-Welsh second row pairing, which leaves Tom Croft and Dan Cole as the two Englishman in the pack to really put their hands up and put pressure on apparent Test starters Dan Lydiate and Adam Jones.

All in all, despite wholesale changes this is a strong Lions outfit. The same cannot be said of the Force.

There is some real quality in the likes of Matt Hodgson, Richard Brown, Toby Lynn, Brett Sheehan and Salesi Ma'afu, but elsewhere the inexperienced Force side are way off the mark to be able to compete in this one.

A weak bench suggests that a late rally in the second-half is out of the question meaning the Force will have to make an impact early on, but a win overall seems beyond them.

It won't be a replica of the Lions 110-16 massacre of Western Australia back in 2001, but the scoreboard will be heavily tilted.

Ones to Watch:

For the Force: Given his fighting talk in the build-up to Wednesday's match, it only feels right to keep an eye on Matt Hodgson. Saying "...if we can't get the win, we can hopefully get a solid performance and hopefully hurt a few of their bodies" doesn't exactly endear you to the opposition and as much as Hodgson and his cohorts might want to get stuck in, he may also find himself on the end of a quiet word from the Lions pack.

For the Lions: The man-mountain George North. Aptly described in commentary last Saturday as looking like "a moving house" when he warmed up, North's stint at centre showed promise but it's on the wing where he is at home. Powerful and quick, he is a nightmare to contain.

Head-to-Head: Two number nines very different in stature. Brett Sheehan's late resurgence in his career saw him selected for the Wallabies last November. Snappy, persistent and sharp, he certainly knows how to dictate a game. Conor Murray on the other hand is a different prospect standing at 6ft 2 and did well in Hong Kong, looking like a younger version of Mike Phillips in the build-up to Cuthbert's second try.

Prediction: A stronger Force side would have certainly made this more appealing, but once the Lions shake off the rust the only question will be by how much. Above 20 seems fair. Could be feisty. Lions by 30.

The teams:

Western Force: 15 Sam Christie, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Ed Stubbs, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Corey Brown, 10 Sam Norton-Knight, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Phoenix Battye, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 James Hilterbrand, 1 Salesi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Sione Kolo, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Ben Matwijow, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Nick Haining, 23 Junior Rasolea.

British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (c), 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 George North, 10 Jonny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip; 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Toby Faletau, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sean Maitland.

Date: Wednesday, June 5
Venue: Patersons Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 18.00 (11.00 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Television match official: tba (New Zealand)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_