Owen Farrell vows to keep cool but Jonathan Sexton leads race for No10

Some Australians may find it hard to believe but, stretched out in business class, there was no sign of any whingeing Poms as a contented Lions squad flew south overnight from Hong Kong to Perth.

An eight-try opening victory, an almost clean injury slate and a rising sense of optimism is not the worst list to declare at immigration. That famously mocking headline – "Is That All You've Got?" – aimed at England and Jonny Wilkinson back in 2003 is not applicable this time.

It is, of course, early days. Saturday's sweat-shop shift in the stifling humidity of Hong Kong may have been demanding in some respects but stiffer challenges lie ahead. As Warren Gatland and his coaches are acutely aware, the Lions are hopping from a hot wok into a raging bushfire of intense competitiveness. To mix outback metaphors, the Wallabies have not waited 12 impatient years to roll over meekly and have their pouches tickled.

Being a Kiwi, Gatland has a better grasp than most of the antipodean mindset, which is why he has made a point of warning his players not to retaliate if, like Owen Farrell at the weekend, they find themselves on the receiving end of a southern hemisphere fist. He might have had even more to say on the subject had Farrell been seriously hurt by his Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits, who has copped a three-week ban, but the episode may yet prove a blessing in disguise.

There is no question the 21-year-old Farrell is straining for his best form, with his resultant frustration having recently spilled over for club and country. While there is nothing wrong with a stand-off who stands up for himself, the last thing the Lions need is a temperamental loose cannon, particularly with only two specialist No10s on the tour. "You can't retaliate, because the consequences of your retaliation can be reasonably severe," reiterated Gatland. "That's a point we will stress to the players."

Farrell, for his part, insists he will not rise to any Australian bait and does not believe the Brits incident will establish an unwelcome trend. "Things happen in rugby. I was trying to pull him into a ruck and he reacted to that. There were no dramas there. When someone reacts to you, you try not to take a backward step. Initially the referee penalised me and then obviously saw what happened on the screen. I shook his [Brits's] hand after the game. He apologised when he came running back on to the field."

As the fly-half readily concedes, though, self-control will be vital if the Lions are to enjoy a successful tour. He is extremely proud to have become the 780th Lion to wear the famous jersey – his unique number, as with every other player, is sewn into his kit – and he has no wish to jeopardise the squad's prospects. "Every game you play for the Lions is huge and to lose someone to the bin would be massive," he confirmed. "You can't afford to do that, so everyone has to be disciplined. You don't want to throw punches."

The only problem is that every Australian side will now be keen to road-test that pledge. The other inescapable truth is that Ireland's Jonathan Sexton looked a significantly more assured gain-line orchestrator when he came on as a second-half replacement. Conditions on Saturday night were as awkward as they come, with a slippery ball proving hard to control, but Sexton is increasingly a man for all weathers. As long as he remains fit, he is a certainty to be the Lions' starting Test fly-half and Wilkinson's absence from the tour party will gradually cease to be a recurring topic of debate. As the former Wallaby full-back Matt Burke put it over the weekend: "The player the Wallabies would least like to front up against would be Sexton."

Things can change in the blink of an eye on Lions tours, however, as Australia are fast discovering. Over the weekend they had to draft in three more injury replacements, with Digby Ioane, Scott Higginbotham and Sitaleki Timani all in danger of missing some or all of the Test series.

Ioane is recovering from a knee operation, while Higginbotham and Timani will have scans on a dislocated shoulder and a suspected broken thumb respectively, injuries that were both picked up in Super Rugby games over the weekend.

The Wallabies' coach, Robbie Deans, already minus David Pocock, George Smith, Tatafu Polota-Nau and the troubled Kurtley Beale, has been forced to summon the Western Force back-row forward Ben McCalman, the Waratahs lock Kane Douglas and Melbourne Rebels' half-back Nick Phipps to this week's preliminary squad training camp in Sydney. The gifted Quade Cooper remains on the outside, despite helping the Queensland Reds to a 33-20 victory over the Rebels, while Beale made a club comeback for Randwick on Saturday.

Deans plans to add six players to his squad on 11 June but his interim reshuffle will remove McCalman from the Lions' second tour game on Wednesday. A cheerful Gatland, meanwhile, is supremely unbothered how the Wallabies regarded his side's first outing. "I don't really care. That performance wasn't about Australia, it was about us putting foundations in place." The 2013 Lions have headed down to Perth with their tails up.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Robert Kitson in Perth, for The Guardian on Monday 3rd June 2013 00.44 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © shimgray