Three games played on Australian soil. Three wins. Three new Lions Down Under due to injury. Three tests eagerly awaited.
There’s definitely been a pattern for triplicates, triads and troikas in the first full week of the Lions Tour. It’s a theme that’s probably not lost on Warren Gatland who, as we know, is a man who likes his patterns of play. The ‘Gatland-style’ has been prevalent in the opening matches in Oz, characterised by the power play of a bulky set of backs and an even fiercer set of forwards. Not that it was ever a great secret anyway, but the cat is well and truly out of the bag in terms of how the Lions will approach the test series. In the first instance, it will all be about the big men running hard and straight, creating holes for the speedsters out wide. When the ball isn’t in hand, the Lions’ game will be defined by a ferocious defence, intent on winning kickable penalties through the god-like boot of Leigh Halfpenny. With three games won its ‘so far, so good’ for this established tactic. But let’s be honest: two of those games were all too easy and resulted in easy wins against a woeful Western Force outfit and a plucky yet out-of-their-depth Combined Country side. Saturday’s game against the Queensland Reds provided a much sterner test for the Lions and their master (game)plan. It also provided fans with a glimpse of the way Robbie Deans’ men are likely to play in Brisbane – with speed, with skill and with great footballing ability. For the Wallabies, it will be a case of ‘if we can’t go through them, we’ll go round or over them’. In the end, Gatland’s charges came out on top against the (curiously absent from Test level) Quade Cooper and his Reds team-mates by sticking to the usual pattern. But will it be enough against a fully prepared Australian team and will it help secure a series victory, or even better, the Holy Trinity of a 3-0 test win for the tourists? Now that would be a pattern to be proud of! This week’s blog looks at the way the Lions have played so far and why selection will be so important against the Wallabies.
Fans of Welsh rugby will be familiar with the ‘Gatland-style’ as it’s a motif they have become used to watching over the last few years, sometimes to the point of frustration (as was the case in last year’s Autumn Internationals). But the beauty of a Lions Tour is that coaches get to work with different players with different skills who can, ultimately, bring something new to the party. Fair play to Gatland and Co – in the opening matches, they haven’t been afraid to mix up the starting XV as they try to find the right balance of players to face (and beat) the Australians. Although the midweek games have lacked match intensity, the teams that have run out for the Lions on those occasions have looked anything but ‘midweek’. It’s been really pleasing to see them bring a professionalism and relentless desire to play against lesser opposition (apart from a lacklustre second half against the Combined Country). It has provided the coaching team with a welcome headache regarding that crucial first-test selection. But given the sneak peek of Aussie play that the Reds provided on Saturday, the side that Gatland should choose is becoming clear.
First of all, Halfpenny has to start – not just for his goal-kicking (he’s missed one out of fifteen so far) but crucially for his last-ditch defence. Stuart Hogg has more than justified his selection as Tour Utility Back, but was I alone in wondering whether the Red’s second try on Saturday would’ve been prevented had Halfpenny been playing ahead of the Scot? His body-on-the-line attitude has saved Wales more than once and it will be required again if the Aussies go on one of their blistering walkabouts. This is especially true given Rob Kearney’s no-show on tour so far. As he definitely won’t be appearing in Brisbane, Kearney’s focus should now be on competing for second and third test selection.
The same goes for Tommy Bowe who regrettably broke a bone in his hand against the Reds. Had he been fit, I think he would have started the first test given his better defensive play compared to Alex Cuthbert who is now likely to take that berth. With the imperious from of George North guaranteeing him a starting spot, attention will naturally turn to the centres and some would say there’s little to choose between the four players available. For me though O’Driscoll has to start. The Lions of 2013 have that little something extra when O’Driscoll and his compatriot Jonny Sexton play, thanks to their superb vision and skilful hands. They are crucial elements in taking ‘Warren’s Way’ to the next (hopefully unbeatable) level. Wrap them up in cotton wool now Mr Gatland for they are the difference between the Men in Red playing a ‘total’ style of play and a rather one-dimensional game. Reverting to the latter could prove costly to the Lions when they face the Australians in full flow. BOD will thrive when partnered with a ‘battering-ram’ alongside him. Roberts or Tuilagi? Take your pick – the other will be on the bench. At scrum-half, I still believe it will be Phillips ahead of the impressive Youngs who will get a place in the match-day squad.
The front-row is picking itself at the moment due to injury and form and I can’t see any other combination than a Vunipola, Jones and Hibbard starting line-up (although the latter needs to sharpen his throwing skills). Second-row looks set to be O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones in a repeat of the 2009 tests.
The most interesting three-sided element of the tour so far comes in the shape of that tricky triumvirate known as the back-row. Here, Head Coach Gatland will face his most difficult and most important selection decisions. All of the seven players in contention are capable of doing the job – and all bring a different style of play and a separate expertise. Picking a back-row capable of stifling the Aussie game could well prove to be the difference between a win and a loss. So who should be picked? Well (for effect) let’s go backwards. I think Jamie Heaslip should start at No. 8 as he seems to be back to his best. Toby Faletau has done little wrong (apart from the odd knock-on) but by such slim margins selection will be made. Speaking of which, Gatland will have to be at his most cut-throat to exclude Captain Sam Warburton from the starting line-up even though Justin Tipuric has been nothing short of excellent. However, it would be harsh to compare the two given that Tipuric has had free rein to roam against the midweek sides compared to the grunt required by Warburton against the Reds. For his leadership alone, Sam will start. No. 6 is arguably the most contested position on the pitch with the speedy Croft, bullocking O’Brien and the destructive Dan Lydiate all putting in good shifts in the red shirt already. The final spot could go to any one of this talented trio, but I think it will be Lydiate who starts. He’s not quite up to full match fitness yet but you cannot deny the quality of his defensive work around the fringes of the ruck. It’s a thing of beauty to watch in full flow and, as the game against the Reds reached its final stages on Saturday, there were signs that Dan the Man could be at the height of his powers by the time the Brisbane match arrives. He’s the perfect player to nullify the Wallabies in their desire to get quick ball. His partnership with Warburton could well be the lynchpin on which the series is won.
Three days to go until another proper examination of the Lions and their play when the face the Warratahs in Sydney. I expect the majority of the first test line-up to start that match so let’s hope that injuries are avoided to the key players. With a fully available squad and the correct selection in the crucial positions, the Lions could well complete a (whisper it) unbeaten tour. Here’s to the ‘Gatland-style’ taking Australia by storm.