BRISBANE // Hard on the heels of their toughest match of the tour so far, the British & Irish Lionsface what will be their weakest opposition when they take on the Combined Country XV in Newcastle on Tuesday.
Coach Warren Gatland probably learnt more about his players in the first 20 minutes on Saturday when his side were under the cosh from Queensland Reds than he had in the previous 160 minutes of action on the tour.
He was encouraged that they kept their nerve and came through the match 22-12 winners to remain unbeaten after three games, but that sort of strong challenge looks like being the exception rather than the rule outside the Tests.
Still mulling his best selection as the tour moves inexorably towards the three-Test series, the New Zealander will try out a few new combinations against an opposition that will be just as willing as the Reds but considerably less able.
That does not mean Gatland is not grateful to get another chance to look at players in match conditions, as he looks to firm up large parts of his Test side before next Saturday's match against New South Wales Waratahs.
"To be honest, the tour's probably about two matches too short for us. You'd like a couple more warm-up matches before you go into that first Test," he said.
"We'd probably need to start formulating that side, particularly going into that Waratahs match, and looking at combinations, too."
In a throwback to the days when Lions tours went 20 matches or more, the tourists will face a mix of New South Wales and Queensland players from Super Rugby, big-city clubs and more modest outfits in what the Australians call "the bush".
Stuart Hogg starts at fly-half to give Owen Farrell and Jonathon Sexton a rest after the specialist No 10s both featured in the first three matches.
The midfield is one of the more difficult selections Gatland has to make, and this week's partnership features Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Welshman Jamie Roberts, who combined so well in South Africa four years ago.
Gatland's determination to give everybody a fair crack of claiming a Test shirt means a distinct "dirt-trackers" team, the sort that would usually contest such midweek matches, has yet to emerge.
That commitment now extends to the props called up to replace the injured Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins with England's Alex Corbisiero starting and Scotland's Ryan Grant on the bench.
Gatland conceded after the Reds match that balancing all the requirements of the tour has been tricky.
"You're in a bit of a catch-22 because your whole focus is about the first Test, then you have to think about the Reds. Then put a side together for Country, then the Waratahs," he said.
"At training, you're doing things that you're not showing at the moment, but you've hopefully got up your sleeve for the first Test as well. You're trying to cover all bases. Which makes it a little bit difficult at times to manage that."
If Queensland flanker Beau Robinson has recovered from a knock to the head he took on Saturday night, there will be at least one face familiar to the tourists in the Country side.
Coach Cam Blades decided to include players whose origins were in rural areas, or who had played rugby outside the cities of the Eastern Seaboard, to strengthen his squad.
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