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Gatland’s Lions must lay down a marker Down Under

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The British & Irish Lions open their 2013 campaign next weekend in Hong Kong with a warm-up game against the Barbarians while en route to Australia.

It should be a wonderful occasion in the former colony, where normally rugby attention is focussed on the fantastic Sevens weekend.

It is also an opportunity for this year’s pride of Lions to lay down a marker before they land Down Under. After a tour in 2001 which was punctuated by disunity, and a 2005 campaign led by Sir Clive Woodward which was an unmitigated disaster, the Lions reputation was rebuilt in 2009.

Sir Ian McGeechan and Co. went to South Africa, where they nearly won their first series since 1997.

Many expect the 2013 tourists to become only the second team to win a series in Australia.

After all, the Wallabies have been hamstrung by injuries to some of their key players, like David Pocock, and discipline problems with others, like Quade Cooper. But if there is one team that they would like to defeat, it is the Lions.

Trawling the internet, it is not long before you come across interviews of former Wallabies talking about encounters with the Lions, and there is no doubt that the defeat they suffered in 1989 hurts more than anything.

In particular, what sticks in their throats is their mauling at the Battle of Ballymore.

The Test match was marred by all-out fighting, and had the hosts won, it would have consigned the Lions to another Series defeat. But when the Lions came out fighting literally the Australians couldn’t cope, and that more than anything hurt their pride.

So this group of tourists should tread carefully.

The national sport in Australia is winning, and the Wallabies will be up for this series.

To be successful, this group of tourists need to gel quickly and they need to get off to a good start on tour. They need to win their opening games and they need to win them well, laying down a marker for the Test matches. If things don’t go to plan, they need to close ranks and become closer as a team, rather than fragment and splinter.

Any weakness or fractures will be seized upon by the Australians and will be ruthlessly exposed.

These Lions are fortunate in that there are few players who will be ‘inked in’ on the First Test team sheet.

Competition for places will be intense and my only concern is that with Warren Gatland’s Welsh dominance, he will go with what he knows best rather than who is on the best form on tour.

It promises to be an intriguing Test series, and I can’t wait for it to kick-off.