The British and Irish Lions captain, Sam Warburton, has warned Australia to brace themselves for an explosive contest when the two teams finally meet in Saturday's eagerly awaited first Test.
Warburton, one of eight Welshmen in the Lions starting XV, also made clear his squad are determined to return home having secured a first series win since 1997.
The Lions' desire to atone for their narrow series defeats in South Africa four years ago and in Australia in 2001 is steadily growing and the 24-year-old Warburton knows the first Test could be pivotal.
"I've led Wales out in some pretty big games but this will blow it out of the water," said the flanker, the youngest Lions captain in 55 years. "None of us have achieved a Lions Test series win. It's something you desperately want to have on your rugby cv. We've got all sorts of other titles but nobody's ticked the Lions box.
"We'll be pretty desperate in wanting to achieve that. That's the one thing you'll see in everybody's body language for every game. The one certainty in all three Test matches will be the players' determination to get a result."
That fierce collective drive is shared by the management, who are conscious of the need to avoid the poor start in Durban in 2009 that ultimately helped the Springboks to edge the series. England's Alex Corbisiero has been preferred to his less experienced compatriot Mako Vunipola at loosehead prop, while Gatland also knows that beating Australia will require more than just a strong defence. Dan Lydiate is rated highly by coaches and players alike but, based on tour form, Tom Croft has been picked on the blindside flank. At his best the Englishman can offer another dimension with ball in hand and poses a serious lineout threat.
His Leicester club-mate Tom Youngs has also earned the nod at hooker – there are five Tigers in the matchday 23 – against a Wallaby team sounding more and more confident. The head coach, Robbie Deans, has included three Test debutants in Israel Folau, Christian Leali'ifano and Ben Mowen, with James O'Connor at fly-half and the fit-again Digby Ioane on the left wing, but insists the Lions will encounter a team right up for the challenge despite a lack of competitive warm-up games. "I can assure you they'll hit the ground running," said Deans. "They know what's coming. It's going to be a battle of wills and momentum is a big part of Test rugby."
Deans has even been recruiting former Wallaby players and coaches such as John Eales and Rod Macqueen to reinforce the message to his players that Lions Tests are different to anything else they will experience. "The passion that comes out is just another level. I trust our systems have improved so that we won't have so much red in the audience but the occasion will be similar. It's a unique contest and we've tapped into some players who have experienced it. We've done everything we can to prepare for it but there's nothing quite like feeling it."
The Lions have five previous Test Lions in their pack alone. Whether George North's hamstring is fully recovered must be slightly in doubt, with Sean Maitland set to feature off the bench, but Warburton can hardly wait to lead his side into action. "I've been thinking about how it might feel for quite a while but I won't truly know until I do it. To lead the boys out in the last two games has been awesome but I know it'll be another level again on Saturday. The Lions is the pinnacle and I'm very proud."
Warburton is also adamant there is enough quality in this Lions squad to clinch a series success. "I've believed that from day one," said the Cardiff Blues flanker, unconcerned by the 14-12 defeat to the ACT Brumbies. "It didn't affect my confidence at all. We spoke as players in the changing-room afterwards and then focused straight away on Saturday. If we can win the Test series, people suddenly won't remember that Brumbies game."
Australia: B Barnes; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper, C Lealiifano, D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander, J Horwill (capt), K Douglas, B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu.
Replacements: S Fainga'a, J Slipper, S Kepu, R Simmons, L Gill, N Phipps, P McCabe, K Beale.
British and Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips; A Corbisiero, T Youngs, A Jones, A W Jones, P O'Connell, T Croft, S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip.
Replacements: R Hibbard, M Vunipola, D Cole, G Parling, D Lydiate, B Youngs, O Farrell, S Maitland.
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