HONG KONG: The British and Irish Lions will look to set the tone for their three-Test tour of Australia by registering a convincing win against the Barbarians in sweltering Hong Kong on Saturday.
The Lions, playing in Asia for the first time in their 125-year history, have handed responsibility for the curtain-raiser to 17 debutants in the match-day squad, with captain Sam Warburton among three players out injured.
But the line-up, picked mainly from those not in club action last week, also gives fringe players a chance to stake a claim for the Australia Tests by impressing against a Barbarians team brimming with international talent.
Veteran Irish lock Paul O’Connell leads the Lions after unlucky tour skipper Warburton was sidelined with a knee ligament injury — although that may yet prove a good omen.
Lions captain Martin Johnson missed the first two matches in South Africa in 1997, but he went on to lead the combined English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish side to a Test series victory, an achievement not repeated since.
Unfortunately for flanker Warburton, whereas second-row giant Johnson had no rivals for his place in the Test side, this Lions squad is overflowing with back-row talent.
Justin Tipuric, another Welsh flanker, will wear Warburton’s number seven shirt and aim to put down an early marker for Test selection after a season in which he was regarded as having regularly outshone his national captain.
It could all leave head coach Warren Gatland with a selection headache when Warburton returns to fitness, probably after the next two matches against Super 15 sides Western Force on Wednesday and Queensland Reds on Saturday.
Nine Welshmen have been selected in the inexperienced side, with 11 new Lions caps among the 15 who will start at Hong Kong Stadium in expected heat of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and 80 percent humidity, despite the 7:30 pm (1130 GMT) kick-off.
The back row, even without Warburton, remains fully Welsh, with Tipuric and Dan Lydiate joined by fellow Lions debutant Toby Faletau at number eight.
The Barbarians, for their part, are still smarting from a 40-12 hammering by England last Sunday and are so determined to put up a better show that they have broken with a long-held tradition and attempted to ban alcohol.
They even eschewed a sponsor’s offer of free beer during a “meet the fans” evening at an Irish pub this week, according to manager Derek Quinnell.
“I think (Carlsberg) were under the under the impression that a few pints would be sunk, but about 90 percent of the squad were on diet Coke,” Quinnell told reporters.
What the other 10 percent were drinking he did not reveal, although some at least switched to wine after players tweeted pictures of themselves with glasses of red and white at Happy Valley racecourse on Wednesday night.
That said, with no-nonsense Sergio Parisse, probably the best number eight in the world, taking the armband, the Baa-Baas look to have transplanted a backbone into the spineless side that surrendered so meekly at Twickenham.
The Italian skipper has a powerhouse front row ahead of him with countryman Martin Castrogiovanni, Springbok hooker Shalk Brits and Welshman Paul James manning the engine room.
Add mercurial French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and All Black outside-half Nick Evans, and explosive New Zealand wing Joe Rokocoko, and it seems the Lions will face a rigorous workout before the trip to Australia.
The 37-man Lions squad fly out late on Sunday. They will play tour games in Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra before the first Test on June 22.