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European campaign a useful audition for Lions tour

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If some members of the Wallabies squad to tour Europe announced yesterday are yet to fully comprehend the scale of the British and Irish Lions tour next year, they can be forgiven. When Justin Harrison put that massive left mitt in front of Martin Johnson in an iconic moment from the deciding third Test against the tourists in Sydney in 2001, Liam Gill was nine years old.

But that's about to change. When they flick through the British press while on their European travels they will quickly realise the spring tour is firmly being seen through the prism of next year's confrontation. The Guardian has already reported that Lions coach Warren Gatland regards these imminent jousts as more important than next year's Six Nations in terms of selection.

It's a view Robbie Deans probably has some time for: if this crew get the job done for him in arenas such as Twickenham and Millennium Stadium they will take a step towards a chance of securing their own Harrison moment. Of course, the flipside is also true. So much for the theory that Scott Higginbotham, only placed on standby yesterday, had dodged a bullet. It has quickly become clear what he has put at risk.

In that sense, the 30-man squad contained no surprises but was no less interesting for it. The chance of a bolter was slim, with one key selection philosophy established months ago by the omission of Ben Mowen. The Brumbies' captain was unlucky. His Super Rugby form was strong and his leadership impressive, but Deans was after a different model. He wants the Wallabies to play but is determined they first earn the right. Accordingly, those judged to have serious power and athleticism as part of their portfolio have had the advantage.

But if those on the outside looking in - the likes of Mowen, Joe Tomane, Cooper Vuna and even Rob Horne and Quade Cooper - now depend on strong Super campaigns to remind the coach of their abilities, there will also be some intriguing contests within the travelling party over the following weeks. Two, in particular, whet the appetite.

Michael Hooper's rise has been so fast that previously unthinkable scenarios, such as moving David Pocock to No.8 or introducing a job-sharing arrangement at openside, have been publicly entertained. Hooper has been remarkably prominent, but don't let Pocock fall victim to short memories. The man almost single-handedly won a World Cup quarter-final.


The first two Tests will be crucial. The tour can be split into two parts, with the challenges of France and England coming first, a fact that hurt Higginbotham's chances. If Pocock is not deemed ready, these will be the opportunities for Hooper to test himself against the tighter style of northern hemisphere play.

France will try to win the scrum and the collisions after it, before spreading it to the likes of the excellent Wesley Fofana.

England will do likewise. Theoretically, that sort of approach takes away of one Hooper's great strengths - his pace. The openside selection for the final Test, against Wales, might be the first clue as to how Deans sees the back row. There are no further Tests, no more auditions in the white-hot conditions that Super Rugby cannot replicate, before the opening Lions Test in Brisbane in June.

Another area of interest is the right-wing spot, where Drew Mitchell, Nick Cummins and Adam Ashley-Cooper have competing interests.

If we say that the coach and the unlucky Waratah haven't always seen eye to eye we probably don't understate it. But Deans keeps turning to him. His side is not scoring tries and Mitchell is a finisher. It may be two years ago but take a peek at a video of his try against the All Blacks in Hong Kong to remind yourself of his ability to hold width and depth and his straight-line speed.

Some of those named yesterday will probably be defined - for good or for bad - by what happens against the Lions in just eight months. They are unique occasions that captivate both hemispheres. For 30 lucky blokes yesterday, the journey there got a little shorter.