Unsuccessful kicks in the last minute of the game appear to be the continuing theme of this tit-for-tat Lions tour. Following on from Kurtley Beale’s slip in Brisbane last week, Leigh Halfpenny was the lonely man in the middle as the final whistle blew in Melbourne. The kick was, to be fair, over fifty metres away from the posts but the obsessive Halfpenny will not be taking any comfort from that. A chance to clinch the series has gone and, at the same time, the mood of the entire tour has changed. Had the ball sailed through the uprights, the errors and missed opportunities of the preceding play would have been forgotten as the Men in Red celebrated a first Test series victory in sixteen years. But the kick fell short, the Aussies (deservedly) won and the series is levelled at one-a-piece. Players, management and fans alike will now head to the Sydney decider with an element of doubt in their mind. Have they missed their best chance to secure the series? Can the Lions seize it back from a Wallaby team in the ascendency? Can this outfit defy the history books which state that, in recent contests involving the two sides, the team that has won the second Test has won the rubber overall? When questions like these begin to seep into the mind, people will naturally begin to question the team and its approach. Fair enough. But on Lions tours there’s always another element to these questions because of the unique way in which the Lions are formed (four nations becoming one). This week’s blog takes a look at the national tensions that exist among Lions supporters, why there is no hiding place for the team that take to the field in Sydney and what Warren Gatland and his charges have to do to avoid being consigned to the bickering dustbin of Lions history.
On the face of it, the Lions mission statement is an ambitious one – to bring the rugby rivals of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales together under the banner of a crest and a shirt to take on the world’s best, with both history and the scale of the challenge being the unifying factor. It’s a truly great concept which, when things are going well, every fan in Britain and Ireland can buy into. But the temptation to revert to a ‘national parochialism’ is just too great, it seems, when the going gets tough. I experienced this last Saturday. I was watching the second Test at The Bowler Pub and Kitchen, Clerkenwell, behind a rather loud (and rather opinionated) Englishman. As Adam Jones was replaced in the sixtieth minute, the said gentlemen (somewhat frustrated at what he perceived to be Jones’ half-shift) shouted, “Why don’t you get fit you lazy bastard”. A zippy one-liner, I’m sure you’ll agree, but totally unwarranted. As Welsh fans will testify, Jones’ fitness has improved immeasurably over the last decade and he regularly plays the full eighty minutes for Wales. Anyway, my (Welsh) friend sitting next to me responded to the gent by saying, “Pipe down, you haven’t got a clue”. I think this little episode perfectly captures the relationship between most Lions supporters – united by the cause but infinitely distanced by their pre-conceived ideas of players, coaches and most appropriate styles of play. This, of course, is one of the reasons why the Lions experience is so unique, and it shouldn’t be disparaged. However, when a Test series is as close as this one has been, and it all comes down to a final game decider, the dividing lines between supporters become more entrenched and opinions more stubbornly retained. At the same time, should anyone express a controversial view in that pivotal last week of the tour, it will be viewed by its detractors as an attack on their nation. For example, Sky Sports’ Stuart Barnes has caused a right old rumpus in Wales today by claiming the series-ending injury to Captain Sam Warburton may be a ‘blessing in disguise’. What Barnes was actually arguing (in a rather clumsy way) was that the Lions need a big ball-carrying player like Sean O’Brien if they are to win the third Test. But his rather unfortunate choice of words has been taken by the Welsh press and certain fans as ‘the Englishman having a go at our Sam’.
Such incidents simply turn the heat up a little higher on Warren Gatland’s men to the point where they know only a win will do in Sydney. Lose that game and they will not only have lost the series but they will have to the live with the ignominy of being the subject of much bickering among home nations fans for many a year – a ‘we would have one had X been playing’ scenario. Had the Lions set the field alight with continuous and scintillating attacking play up to this point, a positive legacy may have at least been assured no matter what the result in the decider. But they were lucky in the first game and overly reliant on defence in the second. There will now be no middle-ground for the class of 2013 and no place to hide given their underwhelming Test displays so far. It’s win or lose, do or die, history-makers or underachievers. Be in no doubt, the stakes have been raised for Gatland, his players and the Lions as an entity this week.
So what do they need to do to avoid such a sore fate? Well, first of all, Gatland must stick with his mantra of picking the best players for the job, regardless of their nationality. He has, so far, successfully avoided lighting this potentially explosive touchpaper by being ruthless in his selection process (dropping the likes of Mike Phillips along the way). However, he will have to be even more brutal for this week’s team selection given that a number of his picks in Melbourne failed to have the impact he would have hoped for. Of those that came into the side for the Melbourne Test, only Dan Lydiate made a case to remain for the decider. The Head Coach is now faced with key selection decisions in several areas – Loosehead Prop, Hooker, Second Row, Openside Flanker, No. 8, Scrum-half, Wing and Inside Centre. The fact that there are still so many positions up for grabs shows that the Lions Test XV have yet to spark. Saturday will be their last chance to do so and selection is vital.
Defensively, the Lions looked sound against the Wallabies (until Adam Ashley-Cooper scored). Yet, the tourists did look pretty toothless in attack. Because of this, it may be time for the big men to make an appearance. Do not be surprised if the likes of Roberts, Phillips and Faletau start in Sydney with Vunipola, Tuilagi and O’Brien coming off the bench. Yep, that’s right – it’s O’Brien on the bench for me with Tipuric taking over from Warburton who proved a real nuisance at the breakdown (thanks to, in part, a more sympathetic referee than the one adjudicating the first Test). The big guys will break the defensive line (a facet of the game that was sadly lacking in Melbourne) which will hopefully bring George North and Tommy Bowe (who was very quiet on Saturday) into the match. In addition, Jonathan Sexton should play a more territorial game. The Lions played too much rugby in their own half last weekend. As an Irish fly-half, Sexton is more than capable of finding the corners. More of this in the decider please Jonny.
And finally something that Gatland himself eluded to at the end of the second Test – better game management. I mentioned this in last week’s blog, but the Lions have continued to make some crucial errors at the most inappropriate moments (summed up by the stolen line-out in the Wallaby ’22’ towards the final whistle). The tourists will indeed have to ‘play smarter’ and take their chances when they arise. That means tightening up at scrum and line-out time. The reintroduction of Alex Corbisiero should help with the former but there’s still work for Youngs/Hibbard and their line-out marshals to do before Saturday’s ‘winner-takes-all’ game. Having said that, their cause might be made a little easier if Aussie Captain James Horwill is found guilty of stamping following an unprecedented IRB appeal. Either way, plenty of practice needed here.
Expect this week to be dominated by debate in the pubs, TV studios and (dare I say it) blogosphere over whose country should provide the key players for the Sydney Test. Win the game and everything will be hunky-dory for a Lions squad assured of their place in history. Lose it and the entrenched bickering among the Lions supporters of 2013 will continue for many years to come. There is no reason why the team led (we expect) by Brian O’Driscoll can’t win it though, but to do so they will have to take the game to their opponents, play on the ‘front-foot’ and sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the Wallabies…after all, they have it all to lose too.