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Warburton must perform as Lions name side for Queensland Reds

Sam Warburton will become the 800th player to wear the famous red British and Irish Lions shirt when he makes his long awaited tour debut on Saturday where he will lead the touring side against the Queensland Reds.

The tour captain comes into the side already under immense pressure for his place in the team after a couple of outstanding performances by his rivals for the number seven shirt, Justin Tipuric against the Barbarians and then Sean O’Brien against Western Force.

Already the battle for the jersey is being likened to the legendary battle for the same shirt between Richard Hill and Neil Back in 1997, a series the Lions won 2-1, in which each player raised his game to seemingly unreachable heights for the other, only to see the other man repeat the feat in their next performance.

While Warburton and O’Brien are capable of playing on the blindside as well, the competition does not ease up there either, where both Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate, who also starts on Saturday, are world class operators.

The versatile O’Brien could even be drafted into the number 8 position but with Toby Faletau, another starter on Saturday, and Jamie Heaslip looking to be at the top of their game, it hardly looks any easier to squeeze in there either.

So it is a big assignment for Warburton on Saturday, he has to step up to and beyond the mark laid down by his teammates, it is an assignment he will relish though; he has always said that he enjoys the feeling of not being guaranteed a place in the team, he feels the pressure makes him perform to his best.

There is certainly evidence of that in his final two Six Nations games of the tournament, a loss of form and the rise of Tipuric left Warburton at an all time low, but under pressure against Scotland and England he gave two outstanding performances.

It is a situation that will please Head Coach Warren Gatland rather than worry him though, he has always stated that his captain is not guaranteed a place and that selection will be based upon form and tactics above all else. To have such high competition for places because of quality performances will only please him.

What will also please Gatland is the make up of the Queensland Reds squad. Gatland, and indeed the entire Lions community, was very disappointed by the decision from Western Force on Wednesday to pick an inexperienced team that posed little, if any, threat to the Lions.

The Reds by contrast have selected nine Australian internationals, with a further 3 on the bench, despite not having access to any of their players in the Wallabies training camp.

As such the game should represent the first real test for the Lions, particularly for Manu Tuilagi and Tommy Bowe who are doubling up after starting on Wednesday as well. Tuilagi will partner Jonathan Davies in the centres, paving the way for Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll to renew their partnership from 2009 next week, while Bowe links up with Alex Cuthbert and Stuart Hogg in the back three.

Gethin Jenkins, Tom Youngs, Ben Youngs, Matt Stevens and Geoff Parling join Warburton in making their first appearances of the tour as Gatland sticks to his plan to give everyone a game over the course of the first three matches, through Rob Kearney still misses out due to his leg injury.

Ben Youngs will partner Owen Farrell at halfback in a tried and tested combination, while in the second row Richie Gray makes his second appearance of the tour.

The big threat for the Lions appears to be from the Queensland midfield where three Wallabies, Quade Cooper, Anthony Fa’aingaa, and Ben Tapuai, await them. Cooper in particular will be looking to make a point after being left out of Robbie Deans’ 25-man Wallaby training squad for the Lions series.

It promises to be a tough battle all round, and for captain Warburton in particular this will be a key game to prove form, despite how early on in the tour we are.

Teams:

British and Irish Lions

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland) 14. Alex Cuthbert (Wales) 13. Manu Tuilagi (England) 12. Jonathan Davies (Wales) 11. Tommy Bowe (Ireland) 10. Owen Farrell (England) 9. Ben Youngs (England); 1. Gethin Jenkins (Wales) 2. Tom Youngs (England) 3. Matt Stevens (England) 4. Richie Gray (Scotland) 5. Geoff Parling (England) 6. Dan Lydiate (Wales) 7. Sam Warburton (Wales, captain) 8. Toby Faletau (Wales). 

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard (Wales) 17. Mako Vunipola (England) 18. Adam Jones (Wales) 19. Paul O’Connell (Ireland) 20.  Justin Tipuric (Wales) 21. Conor Murray (Ireland) 22. Jonny Sexton (Ireland) 23. George North (Wales).

Queensland Reds

15. Ben Lucas 14. Rod Davies 13. Ben Tapuai 12. Anthony Fa’aingaa 11. Luke Morahan 10. Quade Cooper 9. Nick Frisby; 1. Jake Schatz 2. Beau Robinson 3. Eddie Quirk 4. Ed O’Donoghue 5. Adam Wallace-Harrison 6. Greg Holmes 7. James Hanson 8. Ben Daley.

Replacements: 16. Albert Anae 17. Sam Denny 18. Jono Owen 19. Radike Samo 20. Jarrad Butler 21. Jono Lance 22. Mike Harris 23. Dom Shipperley.

Kick off: Saturday June 8, 7.30pm, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

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