The day we’ve all waited for is almost upon us. Gatty’s about to name his test team! Get ready with your most nationalistic, parochially driven fervour (where are the Ulster players! How come there aren’t any Cork men!). Before we look at that, though, a few words on yesterday’s defeat…
There was a smidge of hysteria on twitter in the aftermath of the pitiful defeat, but really, it’s too early to let the panic set in. The team Wazza names tomorrow will bear little resemblance (in fact, probably none) to that which started yesterday. The Lions will be getting a serious upgrade, not least in the tight five, but in particular in the back division. That area of the team had a decidedly patched-up appearance to it, with a three-quarter line made up entirely of new arrivals, one of whom was making a bizarre, fleeting appearance. Gatland and his management team won’t be especially upset, and said beforehand that this week was all about winning the test. He gave his test team the ultimate protection.
All that said, it’s not the ideal outcome. The role of the dirt trackers is supposed to be to keep the wins coming and be seen to create competition for places. With the test team not even named yet, a handful of players should have been looking to present an unanswerable case to Warren Gatland. This did not come to pass.
Gatland saying before the match that he was happy to lose the game and focus on the test probably didn’t send out the right message to the players. There’s nothing like handing a team a bunch of excuses to lower their playing intensity. Is it any wonder the tight five didn’t look especially interested in risking their health around the breakdown?
The game also exposed Gatland’s decision not to bring a third fly-half. Although Ben Youngs had a game to forget, a player with more experience in the 10 shirt outside him would still have directed traffic a little better. The decision to overlook the claims of James Hook or Ian Madigan looks a bit of a folly. It’s hard not to sympathise with Stuart Hogg, a quicksilver full-back who has been denied the chance to press his claims for a test shirt by being forced to muck in in a position where he has minimal experience.
Against that, one has to balance things up against the fact that the Lions backs are really quite terribly injured. If North, Roberts, Tuilagi and Bowe were all fully fit, we’d doubtless have seen a proper backline here. It’s a reasonable decision not to risk any more of his able bodied test candidates. Amid the noises demanding that Gatland is seen to honour the tradition of the Lions, it should be remembered that we are living in an age different to any previous Lions tour, one where injuries and how they are dealt with play a huge part in a team’s success or failure. As for Stuart Hogg, what chance has he of usurping 0.5p anyway? Maybe there have to be a couple of sacrificial lambs on the tour for the greater good. All Lions are equal but some are more equal than others.
With that in mind, here’s what we think Gatty is going for in tomorrow’s test team.
Front row: Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones
Doubts remain over Vunipola’s scrimmaging ability but he is fearsome in the loose. Seemingly flown out as an impact player, fate has handed him a more prominent role with Healy and Jenkins at home, injured. Tom Youngs has impressed with his unfussy, busy performances and is the best of a ropey bunch when it comes to throwing. Adam Jones is an A-grade scrummager.
Second row: Alan-Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell
This one more or less picks itself, despite the best efforts of the impressive Geoff Parling. Jones and O’Connell are test match animals, but they failed to provide the necessary beef in South Africa, and a change of tack was required for the second test. Gatland presumably reckons that against Australia he can afford to go with two athletes (and another off the bench) and manage without a specialist tightead-scrummaging lock in the Shawsy / Hines mould.
Back row: Tom Croft, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip
Time to make your peace with Sam Warburton at 7, and to be fair, Tipuric didn’t make this call any harder with a tentative showing in yesterday’s loss to the Brumbies. Tipuric at his best is sensational, but perhaps amid the hyperbole we need to bear in mind that there are days when he fails to get out of the fringes of the match, and yesterday was one of those. Sean ‘Penalty Machine’ O’Brien didn’t really do his chances much good either, and Tom Croft was at his best against the Waratahs. Can he bring that performance again in the test? One can never be sure with Crofty, but at his best he is devastating, and if the hooker can throw straight, he might even deliver some off-the-top ball in the lineout. Jamie Heaslip probably just – JUST! – holds off the challenge of Toby Faletau, one of the few to emerge with credit yesterday, but the Welshman can consider himself unlucky if he does miss out. Heaslip will need to be at his best in the first test.
All in all, it’s a slightly lightweight pack. Tom Youngs is small by hooking standards, there’s no secialist tighthead lock and Tom Croft is another willowy specimen. Where’s the beef? It’s a gamble going into the first test with such a light pack, and ominously, the very error that Ian McGeechan reckoned cost his team the series in 2009. That was South Africa, this is Australia and the challenges they pose are very different; Gatland will be reckoning he can get away with it this time, but it might neutralise just how much the Lions can target the Aussie scrum and maul. Never give a sucker an even break and all that.
Half-backs: Mike Phillips, Johnny Sexton
No arguments here. At scrummy, Youngs and Murray have both flattered to deceive when starting, but made an impact off the bench. It was always going to take something special to dislodge Phillips from the team – he is a key part of Gatty’s inside ball, bosh it up the middle gameplan – and we haven’t seen anything special from the backups. Outside him, it’s Sexton by miles – he has played right on the gainline and got the backs moving and looking threatening – he will be the first Irish starting test outhalf since … Ollie Campbell? Owen Farrell has continued his patchy form from season end, and Stuart Hogg is entitled to have a right old moan – he travelled as a 15 who can provide emergency backup at 10, but has played as a 10 who can give emergency backup at 15. He hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do in an environment which should suit his style – if he sees Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney in the test 23, he can feel hard done by. It has surprised us how little gametime Phillips and Sexton hve had together – around 50 minutes by our reckoning. Hopefully they’ve been tethered together in training.
Centre: Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll
Outside Sexton, Davies is arguably the third choice inside centre, but he’s flying – Oooooooooooooohh Jamie Roberts MD crocked himself against the Tahs, and Ooooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi is struggling to shake off a niggler and get match-fit. In will step JJV, who is having a cracking tour. Cause for concern? Definitely, despite the talent of both men – not only has Davies extremely limited experience there, but he has struggled with the blitz they want to employ. Again, this partership has had minimal gametime on the pitch together. Having said that, BOD will make any player playing with him look brilliant – Roberts got player of the tour last time out on the back of O’Driscoll. The last player preferred for the Lions 13 jersey to Some Bloke Called Brian was Oooooooooooooooooooooohh Scott Gibbs fully 16 years ago.
Outside backs: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny
Halfpenny is bulletproof these days – he doesn’t miss kicks or tackles. Unlike in 1997, the hosts might test the kicking fullback under the high ball, but everything he touches turns to gold at the moment. It’s a different story on the wing. Of the first choice pair, Tommy Bowe will miss the first test but George North is passed fit – let’s hope he’s properly match fit. In Bowe’s place will come Alex Cuthbert – destructive on his day, he has weaknesses which can be (and have been) exploited, with the Reds taking him to the cleaners. With the turning circle of the Titanic, the Lions won’t want to see him going backwards. Huge wingers coming into midfield channels and feeding on disguised passes from Jonny Sexton is almost certainly going to be one of the most prominent patterns the Lions will look to bring to the first test, so it will be a massive relief to Gatland that he has two giants ready to go, even if he’d prefer Bowe at 14.
Bench: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Rob Kearney
No shortage of impact. Expect the front row to come on more or less en masse. They may even improve the scrummaging, with Hibbard and Corbisiero stronger in that department than the starters, and Cole no slouch either. Parling has been one of the revalations of the tour and terrific off the bench, pinching lineouts and restarts within moments of coming on. O’Brien always looked a likely first reserve in the back row due to his versatility, and the fact he brings something different to the starters – explosive carrying ability. Has Ben Youngs done a Danny Care on it and played himself off the squad? Just maybe; Murray is less of a gamechanger but looks the better bet of the two right now. Farrell takes his place by default, and in the outside back division it looks like a shoot-out between Kearney and Zebo. Zebo has made an impact since arriving, but Kearney, better able to cover full-back, looks the pragmatist’s choice.
Meanwhile, the Australia team has been announced:
Australia: Robinson, Moore, Alexander; Horwill, Douglas; Mowen, Hooper, Palu; Genia, O’Connor; Lealiifano, Ashley-Cooper; Ioane, Folau, Barnes.
Bench: Slipper, Fainga’a, Kepu, Simmons, Gill, Phipps, Beale, McCabe
Amazingly, the Australians might have the power edge in the front five but the Lions look far more mobile. Horwill is a tough player – captain and the pack leader, he keeps the Wallaby front five together. In the back row, Mowen is a good carrier and an excellent lineout option – expect him to move to 8 if Gill comes on for Palu to make the breakdown a war zone. Gill and Hooper are both bang in form – Dave Pocock will be a loss (as we have covered before) but not as big as two years ago when Fez and SOB made hay in his absence. The front row cover is poor, and Rob Simmons is the second row backup.
In the backline, Justin Bieber starts at 10 – he may not fnish the series there (Beale or possibly Cooper will) but he attacks the gainline well, and, especially with Lilo outside, has every chance of exploiting any dog-legs the Lions might leave. Lilo keeps Pat McCabe out of the Brumbies team, and has been given the nod here for the first test. Barnes clings to a place, holding off Nick Cummins with Israel Folau on the wing – turning out for Straya in his third code. The mega-hyped Folau has the potential to be a real
earner for the ARU star, especially if he turns out to be facing Cuthbert or Zebo.