Date: Saturday 6th of July
Time: 11.00am (BST)
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Roman Poite (FA)
Since 1888, Britain and Ireland have sent representatives across the world to tour the most renowned and dangerous southern hemisphere sides. Since the original 21 men played their 35 game tour, the British and Irish Lions have become an institution in world rugby. A unique spectacle that comes together once every 4 years to unite 4 countries in one squad, tackling the huge challenge of conquering Australia/New Zealand/South Africa in their backyard.
John Dawes. Willie John McBride. Finlay Calder. Martin Johnson. The last four tour winning captains. Will Sam Warburton be able to cement his place in rugby immortality come Saturday as the squad captain to lead the Lions to their first victory since 1997? I’m now less sure of that than ever.
From the beginning the Lions were touted as series victors. With Australian rugby in disarray and the vast amount of talent at the hand of the Lions, it was difficult to see otherwise. Furthermore, with David Pocock and Quade Cooper not to play a role in the series, it seemed that the Aussies would be missing two of their most influential players – a huge task for any side. Taking one of their brightest stars in James O’Connor and putting him in at 10 has made him seem as dull and directionless as Spiderman 3. Scott Higginbottham is injured, and George Smith has had injury woes. But, it just hasn’t clicked for the Lions.
The Lions have suffered from injuries too. Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell and now Sam Warburton are huge losses given their (probable) role in the test team. Injuries aside, the Lions just haven’t played rugby in the opening test games. Take the last test – Australia ran 459 metres compared to the Lions’ 140 metres. 136 carries against 66 carries. The Lions just haven’t played rugby in the first two tests, the second test in particular, and what is this down to? Warren Gatland having no plan B.
I’ve previously mentioned in other posts in this blog how Gatland has failed against Australia time and time again with Wales because he plays a one track gameplan with no plan B, and as soon as the Aussies realise this, Gatland and his team are nullified. And Gatland has done exactly the same thing with the Lions. Yes the backs were disappointing in the second test, and in the first test. But such world class players do not become toothless overnight. Johnny Sexton is arguably the best fly half in the northern hemisphere. With Tommy Bowe and George North you have world class wingers. In Brian O’Driscoll you have the most intelligent backline player in the modern era. But with Gatland this is irrelevant. The game plan is to assert physicality, beat Australia up and beat them when they’re tired. And this has failed repeatedly. Pressure is on heading into the third test, and what does Gatland do? Pick a predominantly Welsh side. Make sense? I didn’t think so.
Front row we can have little complains about. Richard Hibbard is a better scrummager than Tom Youngs even if his lineout has been a complete and utter shambles in previous games, you can almost justify his selection. His failures in the lineout are still worrying and a huge improvement has to made, especially with the Lions missing their lineout general Paul O’Connell. Alex Corbisiero rightly takes his place back off Mako Vunipola after returning from injury. While Adam Jones is the ever present tighthead, completing the front row, while the bench front row options pick themselves.
Geoff Parling had an uninspiring outing last week and is lucky to retain his place in the team. He’s toured well and Gatland seems to be a fan of the Leicester lock. Alun-Wyn Jones starts again, this time as captain. In AWJ’s credit, he’s had a brilliant tour and emerged as a real leader within the team. As Gatland prefers his captain to be in the pack, AWJ was always a strong option there. Although there was another option for captain, we’ll get into that further on. Richie Gray takes a spot on the bench for the upcoming test. This is a call that actually makes sense. The lineout has struggled all tour and Richie Gray is 6’10” for Christ sake, there surely has to be some sort of connection drawn there.
Back row selection can make sense, until you look at Gatland’s other selection policies. Sean O’Brien deserves his spot at 7. A destructive ball carrier is missing from that pack. Healy, Vunipola, Youngs, O’Connell are all top ball carrying options for the Lions and none of them are playing. O’Brien is needed for this and will be used a lot on Saturday. This, and Justin Tupiric‘s meltdown against the Brumbies will have brought the Carlow man into the starting 15. Toby Faletau takes over from Jamie Heaslip in a close call. It’s been close the whole tour, Faletau’s tireless workrate deserves a chance in at least one of the tests to be fair. Although, without an out and out fetcher at 7, you’d think Heaslip’s prowess at the breakdown would become more important and crucial in maintaining a balanced back row. Dan Lydiate keeps his place at 6, after having a great game in defense on Saturday. Lydiate is extremely limited in attack and has offered nothing in that regard all tour (or previously), but has been picked on his defence merits. Picking a player for their defence as opposed to anything else. An interesting gameplan by Gatland. One would presume it means he wants to stop Australia playing first and foremost. However his main call in the backline completely contradicts this which is puzzling. If you want to focus on attack you pick the pack to do that, and you don’t pick somebody who will only play the game when Australia have the ball. O’Brien at 6 will carry, Tupiric at 7 will win the ball. That would make sense with that gameplan, as opposed to Lydiate who will just tackle tackle tackle. Tupiric will liven up play when he comes on at 7, hopefully replacing Lydiate for the last half an hour.
Mike Phillips is catapulted back into the reckoning for scrum half. Phillips had a woeful first test. A shocking season. One good outing against the Barbarians is all we’ve seen from the Bayonne man. Will Genia made an absolute fool out of Phillips in the first test with Ben Mowen utterly nullifying him. Phillips does not deserve his spot simple as, reputation aside and he’s out of the line up. Is very much a Gatland call. Conor Murray probably deserved the chance to start, being the in form scrum half of the tour, and he had a lively cameo off the bench last weekend. Hopefully he gets to play a role.
Johnny Sexton continues at fly half over the one dimensional Owen Farrell. Sexton is a better player than Farrell at every facet of the game other than placekicking. So this call is logic. Although with Gatland playing brainless rugby, it almost wouldn’t be surprised to see Farrell’s one track play being exploited by Gatland, as he probably suits Warren better.
The centre partnership. The centre of all the controversy. I find it puzzling. Let’s take the sentiments firstly. Brian O’Driscoll announced his coming on the world stage in the Lions Tour against Australia. This earned him a spot as Lions captain in 2005 against the All Blacks where he was cruelly denied of any part in the series through an awful injury. 2009 gave him another opportunity in the red jersey, and he gave a heroic display alongside Jamie Roberts against the Springboks before being ruled out of the final test with concussion. There’s our sentiments. But, rugby is not a sentimental sport as we’ve seen time and time again. Taking that out of the occasion, we can still ask who has more to give to the Lions on Saturday than this man? There’s nobody you’d put your faith in more than Brian O’Driscoll to give his entire body to the cause. That’s the kind of man you want as captain, or even as a leader. His mindset, style of play, experience and dedication from the off are hugely inspiring. Given the team is bereft of leaders, lacking Warburton and O’Connell, why would Gatland drop the most experienced player in the squad? He’s been treated by Australian media and the squad as the touring captain, you’ll see this in pre and post match huddles and interviews. Don’t leave your general at home when you’re going into war. Dan Lydiate is picked on his defence efforts, yet O’Driscoll’s defence was not enough to keep him in the game? Instead Jonathan Davies gets the nod at outside centre. First I’d like to point out Davies switched to the 13 channel when Adam Ashley Cooper scored the match winning try on Saturday and it was down to him that the try was scored. So his selection doesn’t inspire much confidence. O’Driscoll constantly outplays Davies as he has a better mind and is a more intelligent player. Looking at Ireland versus Wales’ in this year’s 6 Nations, O’Driscoll took Davies to the cleaners, collected everything Davies needed, put him in the car, and dropped him home, right to the door. Davies couldn’t create anything out of play-doh let alone a test winning series. A good player, lots of potential, lots of good abilities. But he hasn’t a patch on O’Driscoll’s creative edge, defensive play or experience. Davies’ lack of experience has really been proven the last two weeks and he hasn’t seemed up to the races. The same could be argued about O’Driscoll in a sense, but O’Driscoll’s positives far outweigh Davies’ positives and are far more proven. This selection proves more than anything Gatland is playing the Welsh game with little consideration for anything else. No creativity in the midfield dominated by Welsh other than Sexton, who now has two crash ball merchants outside of him for his world class wingers to run zero lines off. Jamie Roberts returns from injury to take his place. Personally I have found Roberts disappointing for the last two years so hopefully he can snap into form and give the Lions go forward ball. He hasn’t really had a good tour despite what the media will say to justify his selection. I thought the partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll had potential before injuries, but Tuilagi lacks more gametime than Roberts even. So it would be hard for him to walk into the test team, harder than it is for Roberts. Either way Davies and O’Driscoll didn’t click, but Davies is the man I would have withdrawn.
The back three is made of George North, Tommy Bowe and Leigh Halfpenny. Extremely talented, we can hope they’re not wasted by the lack of skill inside them. Halfpenny will be crucial as he’ll have to kick the Lions to victory, with both wingers looking to get the chance to showcase their talents and bring moments of individual brilliance to the detriment of the Aussies.
Australia haven’t changed much. Their front row are better than were initially credited and outperformed a lethargic Lions scrum the last game. Although with the return of Corbisiero they’ll find it a harder job again come Saturday. James Horwill is cleared and gets to captain his side for the final test, with the Wallaby planning to make an impact in the lineout. Part of me feels he must be slightly disappointed to be partnered by Kane Douglas again, who I think has been relatively useless all series. George Smith makes a splash into the backrow. Interesting call by Deans sees Smith take over from Michael Hooper who drops to the bench in favour of the unlucky Liam Gill. Three quality openside flankers for the Wallabies. Smith will be excited to have another crack at the Lions and it’s very likely he’ll have a stormer on Saturday. Ben Mowen has been superb at 6 and continues with Wycliff Palu at 8.
The master of scrum half play Will Genia is going to go down as a legend in the future. Fantastic player and on another level to anything the Lions can offer. James O’Connor continues at ten. O’Connor is a brilliant player, but is not a fly half. At least not yet. He’s a special type of player and will be one of the best players in world rugby, if he isn’t already. But he’s wasted as an out half and doesn’t seem comfortable. He’d look far more at home on the wing or at fullback, or even in the centre. Strange for Deans to persist with him. The consistent exclusion of Quade Cooper is a huge plus for the Lions, as Cooper could have offered that little spark and flair that Australia have lacked. The rest of the backline is unchanged. Christian Leealiifano has a long career ahead of him Down Under and had a stormer last week as did Adam Ashley Cooper. Israel Folau is a constant threat and will worry the Lions. Joe Tomane had a solid second test last week, and Kurtley Beale has put his demons behind him and seems to be looking forward to a bright future in the game.
In short, Gatland has nailed his colours to the flag. His selection doesn’t pick based on form in all cases, it doesn’t pick creativity, it doesn’t really fit anything in particular other than Gatland putting all his faith in the Welsh players and their style of play, hoping they can pull it out of the bag for him on Saturday. It’s a risk and it’s a gamble. Players like Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies shouldn’t be there, and it’s those players who need a huge game. As it stands on paper and previous watching, Australia will win it. It comes down to Lions’ mentality, how much do they want this? They’ll be tired and they’ll be weary but it’s one game with huge ramifications. Taking all the puzzling selection calls out of it. Taking all the one dimensional tactics out of it. Taking all the frustrating contradiction out of it. Taking Wales and Warren Gatland out of it. The British and Irish Lions have the chance to win the series against Australia against Saturday. If they lose it it throws the future of the Lions in doubt. They’re playing for the crest. They’re playing for pride, and they’re playing for honour. But, they’re also playing for 125 years of rugby history. And, it’s future. Forget form. Forget nationalities. It’s 15 men on the pitch against another 15. If this isn’t enough to light a fire under their belly then we might as well not even walk onto the pitch.
“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.”
– Malcolm S. Forbes