The White Orcs

Stuart Lancaster’s White Orcs are hosting Ireland on Saturday, and it’s Ireland’s most important match since their last important match, against Wales the previous Sunday.  That impressive win has set Ireland up for a tilt at the triple crown and it would be a great feeling if Ireland could lock down silverware halfway through the championship, especially with Italy coming up in round four.

What can we expect from these maginificent rose-clad yeomen?  Well, while Stuart Lancaster is building towards 2015 and has embedded a sense of humility in the playing pool, his team are built on pretty traditional English rugby values of solid work ethic and a reasonable dollop of ‘boot and bollock’.  They’ve a kicking 10 and a fairly brutish pack of forwards.  The backline looks inexperienced, but the two boys in the centres are great big fellows.

They’ve a problem at tighthead prop.  It’s almost as if the tighthead crisis baton has been passed over.  The awful news about Dan Cole having to take an indefinite hiatus from the game affects them grievously.  The next in line looks to be Bath’s David Wilson but he’s never looked like somebody who can be a real force at this level.  He’s from the Mike Ross school of natural fitness and he’s just back from injury.  Most likely he needs a good few matches to get up to match fitness.  The alternative is Henry Thomas, who plays for Sale but is a rookie at this, or any level.

Before we get too excited, he’s probably had more game experience than Marty Moore, but Marty Moore will be on the bench, not potentially starting.  It’s a problem.  Advantage Ireland in the scrum against England?  Wonders will never cease.  The Awesome Power of Dylan Hartley and The Awesome Power of Joe Marler round out the front row and both are having good series.  There’s depth at hooker where Tom Youngs is a fine player, but The Awesome Power of Mako Vinupola, while potentially explosive in the loose, proved a penalty-expensive replacement against France (and in the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions series).

England’s second row is big on physical attributes and athleticism.  The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes and The Awesome Power of Joe Launchbury lack nothing in terms of physicality.  Do they have the heads for it?  When Paul O’Connell unleashes his unique brand of controlled chaos, with no ruck safe from his explosive clearing out, will these two inexperienced forwards be able for it? The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes has form when it comes to disappearing when the heat is on, but then some day he won’t.  We’ve all seen the strength of the Irish maul, and presumably these two chaps will be looking to stop that at source.

In the backrow, there’s another key ingredient missing: Thoroughbred Racehorse Tom Croft.  The Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and The Awesome Power of Tom Wood are fine players, but they’re both similar workers in the six-and-a-half mould.  Ideally you’d like one of them on the openside flank and Tom Croft on the other, to bring a real running threat.  But he’s not here, and Wood and Robshaw won’t lack for workrate.  One or both of them will be tasked with blasting Peter O’Mahony off the breakdown in what will be one of the more fascinating battles of the afternoon.  Can O’Mahony have another game where he comes up with three or four penalty turnovers to kill English momentum? If he does, Ireland should go on to win. Or is the least heralded of the Irish backrow, Chris Henry, the key man – he’s certainly started his belated international career well, and is the most natural in his position of the four flankers. The Awesome Power of Billy Vunipola is at No.8, and he’s been influential so far.  Like the best 8’s he barrows over the gainline, but crucially he can get his hands free and offload to those who can run lines off him.  He’ll need to be policed, but equally, his desire to offload can be a weakness – choke tackle anyone? Where is Stakhanov these days anyway?

Now, the scrum half.  Ah yes, our favourite Test Lion in Waiting.  We feel Danny Care owes us for making us look like eejits by playing his way out of the touring squad from the moment we declared him the starting test Lion.  Well, he’s repaying us and if there was a Lions match tomorrow, himself and Murray would be in the matchday squad.  He’s an instinctive player, something of an Eoin Reddan 2.0.  If he gets quick ball, he can supply the backline with a steady stream of super-fast passes all day long, as well as providing a lethal sniping threat.  There are few better at getting to the ruck at great speed and he has a penchant for quick taps.  Owen Farrell isn’t the most attacking fly-half but Care’s speed of distribution is dragging him kicking and screaming to the gainline.   But put him on the back-foot and and he’s not the best game-manager.  The Irish forwards know what they have to do – get Danny Care.  Ireland’s counter-ruck has been exceptional, and if they can muck up the service to Care that will be a huge battle won.

The backline is really inexperienced, but full of good players.  Consensus is that this is where Ireland can do some damage, but it won’t be as easy as it looks.  The midfield is a case of brains against brawn.  Ireland’s two 95-year old centres have seen everything (unless Bamm-Bamm plays, in which case he has hit everything), while Thirty-Six and The Awesome Power of Luther Burrell are big bruising athletes.  Twelvetrees is supposedly a classy footballer who can play 10 as well, but we haven’t seen too much of it this campaign, and against Munster he was the fulcrum for a lot of ordinary back play. Little known fact about the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell: he’s never been dropped by the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions.

The back three we like.  Johnny May has gas and if he has his limitations, well, a winger with speed will always cause problems.  Jack Nowell looked like a nervous nelly on his debut in Paris and endured a bit of a nightmare, but he was more like his usual self against Scotland.  One try in the Boshiership this season is a pretty mediocre return, even for the Most Adventurous Team in England™, but he has a bit of football about him.  And the man at the back is the fantastic Mike Brown.  Looking at him in full flight and he never looks quite as classy as Ben Foden or Alex Goode, and yet he scores tries, counter-attacks, catches everything, beats defenders and breaks the line so at the end of the day you can’t argue with his selection.  He and Rob Kearney will have a right old ding-dong.

Ireland will line out more or less the same again.  We expect Donnacha Ryan to replace Tuohy on the bench and the rest to be as you were.  It appears that one of Bowe or Fitzgerald would have had a great chance of playing if they featured at the weekend, but they didn’t, so they won’t.  It’s a topic that’s being done to death, but we’d have made room for Simon Zebo, but it’s pretty clear by now that the Cork flyer is not in favour and will probably have to wait until the summer tour to press his case at test level.  Consensus is that Ireland will look to put it through the backline a bit more than they have done, as England will have a more potent maul defence than Wales or Scotland could muster.  It might prove to be wide of the mark, and with the options available out wide, Ireland may stick to the gameplan which has worked well so far. Plus we don’t think the English pack has anything like the granite heart that some of their predecessors had – the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Robshaw have been key forwards in teams humiliated by their Irish counterparts at HEC level in the recent past.  Dare we suggest for a third time that the weather might be dreadful??

Ostrich Deans

True story #1: two Wallabies players missed the team bus to training before the third Test and followed in a taxi. When asked to apologise to their teammates, one said “I’m sorry I didn’t order room service”. The coach did nothing, much to the dismay of the rest of the squad. We’ll reveal who the two players were at the end.

True story #2: it’s been reported that the ARU had decided to dispense with Dingo’s services before the Lions series even started – Deans was officially unaware of this, but its hard not to see him connecting the dots, particularly with Ewen McKenzie and Jake White treating him as a dead duck in public

Post the firing of Deans, the Wallaby camp is beginning to wash its dirty laundry in public, and it ain’t pretty. We previously opined that if the Lions couldn’t beat an Australia team begging to be beaten, who would they beat, but now we can ask an even stronger question – how did the Lions come so close to losing the series to a team with a lame duck coach, low morale and self-destructing superstars?

Understandably enough, it was Gatty’s selections that inspired the bigger debate in these parts, particularly because of the you-know-who decision, and the madcap preference for Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate as ball carriers ahead of Sean O’Brien. Whatever you think about the beefy Kiwi’s picks, at least they won the series, no matter the fortune involved. On the other side of the fence, Dingo Deans made some massive calls of his own, and they were largely catastrophic.

When one looks back on the Test series, the obvious reason why Australia didn’t win was their failure to made productive use of good primary possession. In the first two tests, they owned the scrum, lineout and football, yet lost by one point. When the Lions got on top, they won the final test by 25 points. And this all when Australia had the best scrumhalf (and player) on view, while the Lions hummed and hawed and placated an obviously unfit Mike Philips. Only with Conor Murray on did they look even reasonably effective.

While we aren’t buying the standard Sky winger-playing-at-ten line (he has plenty of experience at ten in Super Rugby), putting his eggs in the James O’Connor basket was a series-defining and disastrous decision by Deans. While O’Connor improved as the series went on, and showed occasional flickers of his talent, he never looked able to get his backline moving – any of the exiled Quade Cooper, an out-of-sorts Kurtley Beale or even Christian Leali’ifano would have been a better option. Indeed, having seen how Cooper filleted the Lions even when behind a beaten pack in Suncorp earlier in the tour, it is probable the Sydney test would have been a dead rubber with him in the side.

In the second test, Michael Hooper played a blinder, and became especially prominent with Sam Warburton gone – Deans repaid this performance by dropping him for the heroic George Smith. While the recall of Smith was a great story, dropping Hooper (and Liam Gill) wasn’t very smart, and his explanation to Gill (“You can talk abvout loyalty when you have 100 caps”) wasn’t very conducive to squad harmony. In the event, Smith was quite clearly reeling from a blow to the head early on and trundled around Sydney seemingly unaware of where he was.

To his credit, Ben Mowen is a massive find, one of the players of the series who looks likely to be a key Wallaby leader for the coming years, and Christian Leali’ifano is the kind of dead-eyed goal-kicker Australia have lacked for many years.

In many ways, Deans was on a hiding to nothing having fallen out with his best player and alienated the Wallaby fan base (such as it is) – and we now know he wouldn’t have got a new contract anyway – but not taking the chances offered up by an average Lions outfit over a three test series, having stuck your stall out was pretty unforgivable.

We’re likely to see quite a few changes in the Wallaby side in the run up to RWC15. McKenzie made a point of insisting all players would be forced to make the team bus on time. It’s probable the tiresome twins will see a sabbatical from Wallaby duty for some time until they get their heads in gear. Cooper and Matt Toomua will contest the 10 shirt in their absence and that of Berrick Barnes, who, along with Digby Ioane, is probably heading north. Henry Speight will be Wallaby-eligible at year end, and from him, Jesse Mogg, Israel Folau (presuming  he stays in union) and the Honey Badger, the Wallabies will pick a fresh-looking back three. Which makes Will Genia, Lilo and AAC the only constants in the backline.

In the pack, there is lots of talk Ben Alexander won’t be seen again, with James Slipper and Sekope Kepu contesting for the long-time Wallaby weakness at tighthead prop. Scott Sia and Siliva Siliva are the future at 1 and 2 respectively – expect to see them tour in November, as backup to Stephen Moore and Benn Robinson.

Another problem position is number 8, where Cliffy Palu had an anonymous series – in the absence of Scott Higginbotham, the only other options are moving Ben Mowen back or promoting Jake Schatz. A partner for James Horwill is needed in the second row as well, where Kane Douglas was fairly ineffective.

In the rush to thump chests and talk about 16 years of hurt ended, Northern Hemisphere rugby needs to recognise the Lions struggled for five-sixths of the Test series against a shambolic Wallaby team low on morale, that didn’t like its coach and had no recognisable gameplan – this was the weakest opponent the Lions faced in many many years. The likely improvement from here until RWC15 shouldn’t convince anyone that the Wallaby team they defeated wasn’t one that the New Zealanders or South Africans (or French, possibly) wouldn’t have swatted aside with ease.

The test series was thoroughly enjoyable for the drama and selection banter involved, but lets not kid ourselves about its quality. The more one hears about the Wallaby camp this summer, the less of a historical (immortal!) achievement the series victory looks – but hey, they happen rarely enough, let’s try and savour it. As long as we also try and learn something from it.

Postscript: if you haven’t worked out who the players are, go off and write 200 lines: “Willie John McBride owes me an apology”, then in no less than 10,000 words write a fair and balanced appraisal of Warren Gatland. End it: Love from Stephen.

Mea Culpa (ish)

Ok, ok, we were wrong. Gatty was right. All previous criticism was undeserved. It’s about time Willie John McBride apologised to him. Etc etc.  For all the talk of the backrow and the centre selection, the most important man on the pitch was the drafted-in loosehead Alex Corbisiero.  Take a bow Corbs, you go home a hero.  But to give Gatland his dues, he got the series win he set out for.  We many never be lovers of Warrenball, but on this occasion, it was good enough to beat an ordinary Australia and for the Lions to a first series in 16 years.  Whatever you say about Gatland, his teams have a habit of winning test matches.

The beefy pack and potent carriers selected for the third and final test by big Wazza did the job – establishing dominance in the set piece and being able to bash over the gainline at will can be a useful combination (who knew?!). Without a platform, and with an ineffective outhalf, the Wallabies couldn’t come back from a horrible start and fell to pieces in the final quarter.

It was great to see the Lions finally playing some rugger, so our dread at the prospect of horrorball winning the series thankfully didn’t transpire, so credit to Gatland – he has done what he came to do.

What is most strange about the whole thing, particularly in light of all the macho posturing about the Wallaby forwards in the build-up to the series, was that it took him three tests to target them – the light and leggy lineout team of the first test followed by the tacklers of the second played into the Wallabies’ hands. Only the instransignce of Dingo Deans refusal to pick Quade Cooper, followed by the unfortunate earlier injury to goal-kicker Christian Leali’ifano in Brisbane ultimately saw the Lions through.

Gatland in fact got plenty wrong on the tour, almost never getting his best team on the pitch.  Even in the triumphant final test, the first 50 minutes was marred by Mike Phillips’ lethargic passing.  It was only when Conor Murray came on that the backline finally got moving.  And whoever knows how Sean O’Brien was entirely left ouf of the matchday squad for the first test.

Helpfully, Australia were also poorly set up.  The failure to find a means to get Quade Cooper on the pitch has proved a grand folly, and the curious dropping of Michael Hooper for the final test never looked a smart call.

Just as odd is the difficulty in identifying Lions who had a really great tour. Unlike in 2009, when the plane was littered with Immortals (Sky alert), only Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Alex Corbisiero and Leigh Halfpenny could conclusively be said to have had truly great tours. There were lots of injuries and mis-selections, a number of others played in fits and starts.  Don’t forget the Lions looked a rabble for the first two tests.

The final game made it into Stephen Jones’ top five ‘greatest Lions days’, a list any day would aspire to get into, but in truth this wasn’t an especially memorable tour.  One suspects from the outside that the players probably enjoyed Geech’s happy-clappy 2009 tour of South Afric more – that team played a better brand of rugby, and played a huge part in a decade-best match in the second test.  But this tour had to be won, and they won it.  Had they lost it, they’d be staring down the barrel of New Zealand in four years and a near-certain five series defeats on the trot.  The whole concept of the Lions would be called into question.  Gatland has effectively bought the Lions a future.

He has got the job done, and, will be able to go back to his job at Wales with most of his players still happy with him – his two immediate goals from the Lions tour. The third goal, the longer one, would have been that he gave a credible audition for the BNZ job, but it’s hard to see anyone from the NZRFU being impressed by unsure selection, Warrenball and a bizarre desire to not press home an obvious advantage over the opposition. Beside all that, the Wallabies are considered easy meat in New Zealand, and coming close to losing won’t look good.

It’s been an odd series, that’s for sure. Tense and competitive, but rarely all that high quality. The Lions come home immortal (does that apply to Brian O’Driscoll I wonder), and the Wallabies proceed to tear each other to shreds – Deans has been fired, and James O’Connor is heading towards scapegoat-ville for his perceived off-field slack attitude. The Australians were wonderful hosts in every way – bringing great beaches for topless photo-shoots, competitive pre-test games, and doing their utmost to ignominiously lose the series – finally succeeding in Sydney.

The deep worry was that if the Lions couldn’t win this series, what could they win, but thankfully the 16-year clock has been reset. This tour certainly won’t have as good a highlight series as 1997 (or 2001, or 2009) but it’s a winning one, and, ultimately, that’s what matters.

The Internal Struggle

There was OUTRAGE of the highest order yesterday, after Gatty unceremoniously dumped you-know-who ahead of the you-know-what on Saturday. The OUTRAGE bubbled and boiled at the injustice of dropping that-bloke-called-Brian and more than a few Irish fans declared themselves Wallaby fans ahead of Saturday.

And no doubt they are serious. Personally, we would find it pretty hard to cheer against any representative team containing Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe (unless they all signed for Saracens), but it’s a very understandable emotion. We’ve talked before about how many fans feel they don’t really have a stake in the Lions and how it’s tough to really buy into the team, so it’s quite obvious how disappointment can breed resentment.  It’s easy to talk about getting behind the Lions and how there are no nationalities, just 15 Lions (though this is easier said when the team is full of your own national heroes!), but deep down, it doesn’t really work that way for anyone.  At the end of the day, folk have an affinity with the players they adore for their club/province and nation.  There’s no instinctive reason to feel emotionally attached to a mainly Welsh team playing such reductive rugby – unless you’re Welsh, or really enjoy negative rugby.  The great binding force of the Lions crest can only get one so far, particularly when it has become so wearisomely rammed down supporters’ throats by the Sky machine.

While it’s difficult to completely disentangle one’s emotions after the whole BOD affair, it’s not so much the OUTRAGE over the dropping of Ireland’s national icon that is so deflating, but the message it sends out about the identity of this Lions touring squad.  It’s a sad indictment of this Lions coaching team when the most skilful players – Brian O’Driscoll and Justin Tipuric – are passed over for bigger chaps who can bosh harder.  Is this really the best the Lions can do?  I thought this was the pinnacle of the game, or something.

While we’ll be cheering for the Lions on saturday, there is a goodly portion of our being that feel the best result for all concerned is an Australia win.  This Lions squad simply doesn’t deserve to win the series (barring a sudden about-turn in performance and approach entirely out of keeping with the selection and the first two tests).  Sky will tell you that ‘immortality’ beckons for the winners, but does it really?  Immortality, for scraping out two wins (one of which was undeserved) against a misfiring Australia?  In what has been a lamentably poor quality series thus far, the Aussies have been the better side in all facets of the game, have shown occasional invention, been brave (foolhardy?) in selection (three debutants and a rookie outhalf for Brisbane), have at least two bona fide geniuses in their team and, crucially, have played all the rugby on offer (such as it has been).  They are far from a great team, and frequently go backwards in their attempts to attack, but at least they’ve tried to play with the ball.

This Lions team and squad is supposed to be the best the Northern Hemisphere (well, the old public school English-speaking Northern Hemisphere) has to offer – and they haven’t covered their Hemipshere (go Northern Hemisphere!) in glory. They have bished, bashed, shunted, huffed, puffed and boshed (in the Tests) – which should have been expected, to be frank.

This years Six Nations was an utter abomination. It started and ended brilliantly, involving the best and worst of the Welsh, but in between, plumbed the depths – the Wales-France game was simply appalling and England and Ireland got more and more dismal as the tournament progressed. And the domestic competitions weren’t much better – the Heineken Cup was dominated by the French, and won by a bosh-and-bullet bunch of mercenaries whose only try in the knock-out stages involved Europe’s most dislikeable player. Ulster and Leinster served up a decent Pro12 final that befitted a rejuvenated competition, but only Leicester Tigers really got the pulses racing.  When you’re relying on the Tigers for attacking rugby, well…

The Lions are essentially composed of Leicester and Leinster players bolted onto the (Six Nations winning) Wales squad – and it’s been grim to watch. If the Lions do manage to win in Sydney, it will be a disaster for Northern Hemisphere rugby – a Neanderthal gameplan that prizes brawn over brain will have prevailed and will doubtless become orthodoxy all the way to RWC15. At least Ireland can rely on Joe Schmidt to buck the trend, but on the squidgy February pitches even he will be up against it.  Where are the skills? Where is the daring? I’m sure we aren’t alone in thinking players don’t need to be from below the equator to be able to play an enterprising and watchable brand of rugby, while retaining enough forward power to get the Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeave going.  Fancy the Lions Tour commemorative DVD under your Christmas tree?  No thanks.  But… Immortality!

Ultimately, wouldn’t it be better to come home in a welter of hand-wringing, wondering why the best that four Nations has to offer couldn’t beat a Wallaby team that was begging, begging, to be beaten. There’s something unsettling about the thought of Gatland being vindicated having presided over such a dispiritingly awful series and after his grandstanding in dropping Brian O’Driscoll.  In Sydney, we’ll be hoping the Lions come out, and contrary to all the pre-match signifiers, give it a good lash, play some decent stuff, show well (all of them, not just the Irish), contribute to a great game of rugby and thrash the Aussies by four tries to one.  But if they set their stall out to grind and bosh their way to a win, there will be a considerable dose of schadenfreude in Cordite Towers if they get what they deserve, which is to lose.

Post-script: re the OUTRAGE – have we really gone for the ‘Justice for BOD’ line? Justice? Really? Too strong? Maybe we should ask the Egyptian public their thoughts on this ‘injustice’?

Numero Uno, and Triskaidekaphobia

There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.

When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?

He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.

Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history.  ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’.  The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.

So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.

Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.

The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it.  With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months.  They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.

The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose.  As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest.  But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.

Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference.  So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players.  No room for creativity here.  That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary.  Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre.  It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed.  But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.

Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.

With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders.  Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).

The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky.  Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far.  Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side.  Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue.  The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today.  As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric.  He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.

Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything.  Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves.  While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test.  Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.

Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.

But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.

Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?

Reductive

Ha!  What was our headline again?  ‘Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat’, was it?  Joke’s on us.  ‘Hoof ball. Chase ball. Repeat’ would be more like it.  What looked, optimistially, to be a team selection to move the point of attack in fact turned out to be one sent on to the pitch to chase high balls.  It was puke rugby and the Lions deserved to lose.

Warren Gatland stands to be castigated for exceptionally reductive, negative tactics in a second test which was there for the taking against a nervous, mistake-ridden Australia.  But by relying on chasing (admittedly pretty accurate) garryowens and winning (admittedly superbly contested) turnovers on the deck, and refusing to try and play rugby with ball in hand, the Lions found themselves hoping to defend their way to victory.  Eventually the dam burst.  The Lions can point to how close they were to a series win, but the truth is that had Leali’ifano been kicking last week the series would be over.  Sure, Australia played as if they had a rifle pointed at their feet and their finger on the trigger for most of the game, intent as they were to throw the ball forward, but eventually the passes stuck, the fly-half found a running angle, and they came up with the winning score.

The most damning statistic in the ESPNscrum.com horror-show was that Johnny Sexton passed the ball ten times in the match (second most damning statistic: 15 of 20 Lions had more tackles than metres carried).  The Lions have a huge advantage at fly-half, where Europe’s finest is facing off against a player who is unfamiliar with the requirements of the position at test level. Instead of trying to press home that advantage, they have him performing a role that his deputy, the obviously inferior Owen Farrell, could easily manage.  What are they thinking?

Gatland can argue that the intention was not to reduce the gameplan to kicky-kick, and that the lack of go-forward ball presented to the halves necessitated that they adopt a conservative approach.  Fair enough, but with the team he put out, is it any wonder?  It was pretty obvious that with the backrow and centres selected, the Lions were going to struggle to get over the gainline.  Gatland could have picked any or all of Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau or Manu Tuilagi but declined on all three counts.  The media are only too keen to paint Dr. Roberts as a panacea to all their woes, but that overlooks the fact that there were alternatives in place to compensate, and also that Roberts hasn’t really played very well at all since Hong Kong.  He’s a fine player, but doesn’t have a magic wand (he has started 5 games against Australia and lost 4) . Also, the sight of Leigh Halfpenny fielding a garryowen in some space with men outside, then promptly booting it into orbit, doesn’t quite speak to a ball-in-hand gameplan.

Similarly, the strife at scrum time was only too predictable, because Vunipola is so poor in the set piece.  The medics will be working hard to get Alex Corbisiero out this week, and how they need him.  The lineout was a showcase of how muddled the thinking has got; when they’d Croft in the team last week, they threw to the front all day.  When they didn’t they went for the tail.  Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The real clanger of a performance came from Ben Youngs, who was at his arm-flapping, faffing-about worst, admittedly behind a retreating pack.  Conor Murray hugely improved the picture when he came on and is better able to control the game when on the back foot.  Are we about to see Warren Gatland go through his entire roll-call of scrum halves over the three test matches, and start Murray in the decider?  And is he about to try and rebalance his backrow once again (notwithstanding that he must replace Warburton due to injury)?  If he does, it will be symptomatic of a failure in selection, an inability to identify the form players.

The real disappointment is that in the warm-up games, the Lions at least appeared determined to play some rugby.  But any aspiration to creativity has disappeared once the test matches have begun.  It looks like the Lions have been suckered into the thinking that ‘winning’ rugby is somehow synonymous with strangling the life out of games.

It makes you despair for the future of the Lions.  We are told that this is the utmost, the pinnacle of the game, but the test matches have been, on the whole, poor to watch, and Lions have been boring.  The Aussies are in pole position to finish off the series in Sydney; they have the momentum and have shaken off their place-kicking hoodoo.   If the Lions don’t win this series, when are they going to win one?  But even worse, if they go down having barely tried to attack Australia, it would beg the question, what is the point?

Geech’s 2009 Lions won many friends because of the enterprise they showed.  They lost, but they ran one of the great teams of the professional era mighty close, were distinctly unlucky and went down swinging playing some great stuff in an era where great stuff was few and far between; 2009 was the year of the ELVs, remember.  In doing so, they put the soul back into a franchise that had suffered huge damage in 2005.  If Gatland’s team perform in Sydney as they did on Saturday, they will have undone that work. The next time we see them, they’ll be going to New Zealand.  Good luck with that one.

Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat.

Warren Gatland has named his team for the second test, and the big decision has been made at scrum-half, where Mike Phillips, who looked to be operating below 100% in the first test, carries the can.  Rather than replacing like for like and replacing him with Ireland’s Conor Murray, who even looks a bit like him, he’s gone with Ben Youngs, who’s a totally different player, a nippy nine who’s all about high tempo and quick tap penalties.

Elsewhere, Mako Vunipola starts.  We thought he’d be held back as reserve again, but Gatland will be hoping that having Adam Jones on the other side of him will be enough to drag the scrum kicking and screaming through 80 minutes.  Before the tour started, the Lions could have reasonable hopes of using the set piece as a weapon – now it’s fingers-crossed time.  At least Vunipola offers a strong carrying threat in what is a pack short of gainline breakers.

To nobody’s surprise, Dan Lydiate starts at 6.  We know what he’s there to do, so let’s hope he does it.  O’Brien mercifully gets called up to the bench, where he finds himself beside Tom Croft, who’s covering the second row.  If last week’s bench was light on impact, this time Gatland has swung the other way and both could be explosive against tiring legs in the last 20 minutes.  The price to pay is that Alun-Wyn Jones is now a protected species.  Were he to get injured, a second row of Parling and Croft would leave the Lions worryingly short of power.  An already creaking scrum could be decimated (ref: last 20 in Brisbane)

Back to the scrum-half business, which has serious consequences for what we can expect from the Lions.  Warrenball is predicated on a monstrous nine who can commit tacklers and bring in huge runners around the fringes.  Bosh! Smash! Kapow! This team looks like a serious deviation from Warrenball.  With a backrow containing three ruck-smashers in Lydiate, Warburton and Heaslip, the aim must surely be to win oodles of silver-platter ball for Ben Youngs.  Youngs struggles on the back foot, where his game can become a tangle of arm waving and poor decisions, but with decent service, there are few quicker at getting the ball away to his fly-half.  It might just suit Jonny Sexton, who can unleash the three-quarter-line, which is loaded with gifted strike runners.  It does look like the plan is to go around Australia rather than bash through them.  If they can get the ball into North and Bowe’s hands in good positions, how can they lose?

The trouble with the plan is that in order to generate quick ball, you need to punch your way over the gainline.  With no O’Brien, Faletau, Phillips or Tuilagi starting, who is going to make the hard yards?  Jamie Heaslip and Mako Vunipola will have to put in some serious shifts.  The other minor issue is that as far as we can make out, Ben Youngs and Sexton have yet to play together on the tour, and therefore ever.  For what looks a fairly natural partnership, it’s a bit nuts that their first appearance alongside one another is in the pivotal second test.

Gatland has shown some ruthlessness in dropping tryscorer Cuthbert in favour of Bowe, who is a player he appears to value very highly.  It’s a marginal call, and Bowe came out the right side of it.  With Toby Faletau unlucky not to feature in a test squad yet, despite playing some great rugby, nobody can accuse Gatland of having a Welsh bias.  He certainly appears to have his favourites, and one ould certainly make a case that the test team was picked in advance of the plane touching down in Hong Kong, but his favourites aren’t necessarily Welsh.

There were a few surprises in the Aussie team too, not least that they are sticking with James O’Connor at 10, in spite of Kurtley Beale starting.  We thought they’d move them around a bit, with O’Connor on the wing and Beale at 10.  The first test was marked by each team having one half-back in princely form and one playing like a drain.  At least the Lions have sought to address their issue.

And where the bloody hell is the Honey Badger?  We are outraged.

Tackling AND carrying? Nah, no-one can do that.

One test down and the Lions have gone one-nil up, yet the odds on them taking the series (starting from generous prices, in our opinion) have barely moved. The Lions may have won, but they erred badly in a number of fields: selection (unbalanced backrow), tactics (Mike Philips booting the ball in the air or running into Ben Mowen), playing the referee (peep! off your feet .. peep! off your feet … peep! off your feet) and bench usage (the sight of the reserve Australian front row marching the Lions scrum backwards was an absolute embarrassment).  Australia made plenty of boo-boos of their own, especially with selection at 10 where the continued reluctance to forgive Quade Cooper is increasingly looking like the rock on which Dingo Deans will perish.  In the end the Lions squeaked home for a fortuitous victory.

Four years ago, the Lions got selection wrong too, but they looked coherent and had a gameplan to trouble the opposition. They were then playing the world champions, a team at the peak of their powers, about to win the Tri-Nations with a number of all-time greats in situ (John Smit, Bakkies & Victor, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana) – here they were playing a decent and underrated Australian team, but still an average enough one, and struggled, fading badly in the last 20. They could/should (delete as appropriate) have lost by 15 points. And this in spite of the Wallabies having four backs carried off, and losing their goalkicker and key attacking weapon Christian Leali’ifano after 42 seconds.

Even with a different selection and tactics, with no Dr Roberts and with Philips owned by Will Genia and Mowen, the Lions are up against it in this test. They got away with the first win, and the Aussies are more likely to improve as the series goes on, and surely can’t experience another perfect storm of head injuries.

If it comes to a decider, the Lions are goosed.  Why?  Well, injuries for a start.  Sure, both sides are just as liable to get them – heck, the Aussies had three players leave the field in neck braces – but if they do lose players ahead of the third test, they have a whole nation of players to choose from (well, NSW and Queensland, but you get the point).  If the Lions get badly hurt, the time for flying out emergency rations is over.  They must make do and mend with what they’ve got.  Or bring in players who are holidaying nearby.  Hello, Tom Court! Don’t suppose Lesley Vainikolo is visiting relatives in Oz?

There’s also the momentum swing-o-meter.  Should the Aussies level the series at 1-1, they’re the ones with the momentum whlie the Lions will be edgy, and they’ll expect to carry that through to the final test, just as they did in 2001.

It all makes this match something of a boom-or-bust for Gatland.  He got away with a flawed selection for the opener, and will have to make some changes in personnel and alter his gameplan a fair deal to win again.  Fate as not been kind to him, and two of his certain starters – Paul O’Connell and Alex Corbisiero – have been ruled out.  While O’Connell is the better player, at least there’s a like-for-like replacement in Geoff Parling (at least in playing terms – leadership qualities aside). At loose-head prop, it’s a choice between Vunipola, who got mashed into the turf in Brisbane; Ryan Grant, who is a better scrummager but is “limited” in the loose; or holidaymaker Tom Court. No easy solution. 

We were a little taken aback by just how poor Vunipola was in the set piece. We knew he was no technician, but we expected the Lions would at least be able to get the ball out on their own put-in, even if it was the sort of unusable rubbish that requires the scrum half to jump into the breakdown.  Alas, even that lowly ambition proved impossible.  He’ll be held back as impact reserve again, and Grant will presumably start.  Don’t expect to see Vunipola before the 60th minute this time, as Gatland will be more circumspect about changing up his front row after the way it backfired.

The backrow remains the most competitive and contentious area, and one where Gatland probably got it wrong in the first test, despite choosing from an embarrassment of riches.  After the way Will Genia ran wild and free, we’ve a really strong feeling that Dan Lydiate will come in to the equation.  While this is outright speculation, we’ve a feeling Gatty bowed to some pressure, whether from Rowntree or the English media, to pick Tom Croft for the first test, but doesn’t 100% trust him.  Now’s his opportunity to pick Lydiate with a view to shackling the Aussie scrum-half, around whom everything happens for Australia.  Stop Genia and you stop Australia.

With Lydiate and Warburton in the team, and with Vunipola unselectable because of his scrummaging, the Lions’ pack’s biggest issue is a lack of tackle-breaking ball carriers.  So there’s a chance we could see Toby Faletau selected for a bit of explosive ball-carrying. It would be harsh on Heaslip, who played well in the first test in getting through a mountain of dog work.  Faletau played for 80 minutes yesterday, which makes it odds against, but don’t rule it out.  Tackle-breaking ball-carriers who can also mount huge tackle counts, you say? What a pity they didn’t bring a multi-functional backrow forward, who is in form. Hang on, they did, didn’t they? Sean O’Brien. The Carlow chap. Likes cows and that sort of thing.  O’Brien seems to be falling between the gazelle-like Croft rock and the iron tackling Lydiate hard place, and at this stage is almost becoming something of a cause celebre. Sure, he isn’t a lineout option, but then again, with Tom Youngs throwing to the front to avoid Mowen every time, who cares? He is bang in form and the Wallabies don’t want to see him – he should play at blindside, but surely – surely! – he’ll at least feature off the bench this time.

The line-out was a bit of a puzzler.  Palla Ovale remarked at the time that he couldn’t understand why the only time the Lions went to the tail they tried to maul off it, and tried to go quickly into midfield off all the front-of-lineout ball they won.  Surely tail of the lineout ball is the only opportunity to get the ball to the backline with a bit of space in front of them?  Happily, far greater minds than our own thought exactly the same thing, proving us right in our own heads and enabling us to feel very happy with ourselves.

The Lions have to make a choice at half-back.  Not in terms of personnel, but in terms of gameplan.  Phillips had one of his worst test games in memory on Saturday and looked decidedly rough around the edges.  He’s a class player, however, and neither Conor Murray nor Ben Youngs have made a compelling case to oust him, so he’ll start again.  Sexton, of course, will also start.  Both Sexton and Phillips are alpha-halves who want to dominate and control the game.  The Lions spent much of the first test trying to use Philips’ running game to make ground, but got nowhere.  Once they started using Sexton, his varied kicking game and slick passing game caused Australia all sorts of trouble.  Gatland must sacrifice some of Phillips’ natural game and instruct him to be more of a servant to Sexton, who has the ability to bring the superb three-quarter line outside him into the game in lethal fashion.  What a pity Danny Care decided to play absolutely rubbish in the lead up to squad selection, in top form he would be a potentially superb alternative and perfect foil for Sexton, if his pack could protect him.  He’s basically a better Eoin Reddan.

At inside centre, the indications are Roberts won’t be back until Sydney, and it’s a choice between keeping Johnny Davies there or taking a chance on Manu. Davies is the probable safer option, particularly if Faletau comes in. We would have concerns about his defensive positioning facing Lilo (he occasionally drifted into the 12.5 channel and left Sexton defending a huge piece of real estate, but Pat McCabe and Michael Hooper never exploited it) but he has been playing well.  Manu has shown signs of dovetailing with BOD and there’s a compelling case to be made for his rough-hewn but often thrillingly destructive talents, espcially given the already discussed shortage of tackle breakers in the single-digit numbered shirts.

Tommy Tommy Bowe will come into the 23, but we don’t know if Cuthbert will make way on the right wing – he took his try well and didn’t do a whole lot wrong, apart from one horribly spilled ball. The progressive selector would pick Bowe (and Tuilagi incidentally) but we just can’t decide how Gatty will swing.  He appears to be saying a lot of lovely things about Bowe, but Cuthbert’s try might be enough to swing it for him.  Who knows?

We were confident last week that Gatland had made a mess of his bench, and so it transpired.  It was straight out of the Declan Kidney school of Substitutions.  He made changes too early where none were required, and then appeared to get spooked and made no more until very late on.  Vunipola looked like being the very definition of an impact reserve, but in the end he had the wrong kind of impact.  Ben Youngs should have been an upgrade on Mike Phillips – how could he not be? – but he wasn’t really much better.  In the backrow Dan Lydiate made only a cursory appearance, after all the broohaha over his selection.  This time around we’re hoping to see names like Richie Gray, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe, so hopefully there’ll be a bit more oomph stepping off the pine.

Even with the selection we’d like, we think the Wallabies will win – they have lost Barnes, McCabe and Ioane, but the Honey Badger will probably come in (cue joy all around), Folau will move to full back (where he has played most of his rugger i.e. 12 starts from 14) and Beale will start – probably at 10 with Bieber on the wing. Their pack played well and the team should shake off the rust and play more confidently. It’s a big ask for the Lions without O’Connell and any of their three best scrummaging looseheads, but picking the right team from those available would be a start.

Dark Side of The Moon

Watching the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions match as Kurtley Beale lined up the sure-to-be-matchwinning penalty, it seemed the men in red were about to lose.  We’d resigned ourselves to feeling disappointment, only for  – hang on a second, what was that?  Disappointment?  This is the Lions, the pinnacle of rugby, about to have the first win of the series scratched off with the last kick, and all we could muster up was a sense of disappointment?  ‘Fraid so.

In fact when the Lions had won the match, we almost felt guilty cheering.  It was a flukey win, and the players – O’Driscoll especially, and Gatland too in fairness to him – had the good grace to look pretty sheepish in their post-match interviews.  This was ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ stuff if ever we saw it. If Ireland has accomplished the same after Owen Farrell slipped, we’d be drinking deep from the well of schadenfreude, and, without putting too fine a point on it, absolutely bloody loving it.  But we felt sorry for Beale.

Had Beale scored the winning penalty, it was not about to become a moment etched into our souls forever, like some losses, which are so awful you never quite forget them, and can recall just how you felt at the time if you remember hard enough. I’m thinking of Vincent Clerc’s try at Croke Park, after which I could barely speak for half an hour and couldn’t bear the thought of drinks in the pub; Leinster losing to the Ospreys, coughing up a historic double in the dying minutes.  Every rugby fan will have their own.

It would have been more a feeling of being sad for the players, especially the likes of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll whose careers deserve a winning Lions series on their ‘palmeras’ when they retire.  But it was not about to be a gut-wrenching, week-ruining defeat.  But why?

At times, the Lions thing just gets a bit much.  It’s great fun, and the concept of four countries coming together for a lengthy tour is obviously a winning one, but it often feels a bit like we know it’s the pinnacle of rugby for everyone involved because… the commentators on Sky keep telling us it’s the pinnacle of rugby for everyone involved.  We know it means a lot to the players to play for the Lions, but is that not because the act of being selected is an achievement in itself, being recognised as the best player in your position across the four nations?  The specific act of playing for the Lions rarely amounts to much, as it mostly involves getting beaten.  Has such hyperbole ever been drummed up over such a bunch of serial losers?  For all the talk of the spiritual nature of the shirt and the greats that have gone before, they have mostly handed down a legacy of losing test matches.  The successful tours are eulogised ad nauseum precisely because they are so rare.  Four combined nations, bringing together about 75% of the rugby talent the northern hemisphere has to offer, and they can’t even beat a single nation.  No wonder the French sneer at us.  Well, when they’re good, at least.

The matches are generally exciting and there is something great about seeing the four nations come together and witnessing, say, Jamie Heaslip and Sam Warburton embracing at the final whistle yesterday.  But we fall just short of wetting our knickers over it in the same way Stephen Jones and Ian McGeechan – men who would have the entire rugby calendar altered to put the Lions at the centre of it – do.  There is a grain of truth when we say that the moaning about selection is more enjoyable than the games themselves.  We have written in the past about Irish fans not feeling a sense of ownership of the national team in the same way that they do of their province.  Well, who owns the Lions?  Errr… Geech? Willie John McBride?? Sky Sports???  No doubt for those following the tour, it’s easy to buy wholesale into the mega-hype, but for those a continent away on their couches, it’s hard to feel that the team represents you as a supporter.

Plus, it all gets a bit Harlem Globe-trotters – when you have the cream of Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland thrown together, the temptation is to treat the whole thing as a kind of exhibition. Instead of cursing Israel Folau for all that cash he gets, or calling Michael Hooper a cheating scumbag, or saying Berrick Barnes kicking is worse than his moustache, you find yourself being the ultimate sportsman, and enjoying the achievements of the opposition. For one, Egg kind of sort of wanted Beale’s kick to go over – for the better team would have won, for the drama of it, and for Beale himself. When Israel Folau got the ball from Ben Mowen with three men still to beat – all excellent defenders – our heart rate quickened, and not in a not-that-goon-Chris-Ashton way, but more in a visceral I-really-really-love-this-sport kind of way.

Without getting too Thinking Fans Guide to the World Cup * about it, the Lions is a bit like listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.  You know it’s fantastic and the feats on display are hugely impressive.  You’ll certainly return to it again and you enjoy listening to it.  But it doesn’t quite stir the emotions in the same way as The Stone Roses, Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks or the third Velvet Underground album.  No, that’d be your club.  Or your province.  Or your country.

Now, where were we.  Oh yes.  Sean O’Brien has to – HAS TO – start the second test… But he won’t.

* this was a book that came out for the soccer world cup in Germany in 2006 – it was possibly the most right-on middle-class do-gooding sports book ever written. The basic message was that nationalism was so uncouth – so George W. Bush, so property boom – that it was better to support countries based on who they were. Into good wine, food, and classical music – Azzuri! Into developing world land reform issues and wearing those shawls everyone who has been to Macchu Picchu has – Bolivia! Into high tackles, boshing and paradise – Samoa! Ok, maybe not the last one, but it was eye-gouging (Argentina!) stuff.

Nerves-a-jangling

Warren Gatland has staked his money on the setpiece, and the Lions being ahead after an hour.  In the marginal calls he’s gone for Tom Youngs for his better throwing, Alex Corbisiero for his scrummaging and Tom Croft for his lineout work, as well as the potential he offers for long range tries.  It’s all set-piece and no phase play.  He’s left Vunipola out of the starting team and O’Brien out of the squad entirely, taking out his two best carriers.  You could add Toby Faletau as the third best, and he’s not in the squad either, though Heaslip is strong in that regard.  The best chance of getting over the gainline looks to be through the scrum-half and the wings.  Will Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones be pressed into carrying duty?  And how will that affect the Lions at the breakdown, an area they have struggled at times so far?

By far the strangest call is the selection of Dan Lydiate on the bench.  Lydiate is a Gatland favourite, but hardly an impact substitute.  He offers little in attack or at the set-piece.  His speciality is generating high tackle counts, marking out specific ball-carriers and ruling the gain-line.  Whatever about the merits of leaving Sean O’Brien out of any team, leaving him out for a fellow who isn’t even playing all that well is entirely another.  We felt Lydiate’s chances had receded after he failed to start either of the most recent games, because he is a player that appears to need the game-time, being just back from injury after a lengthy layoff.

He’s a man to protect a lead rather than chase a score.  He also offers little in the way of flexibility.  If Sam Warburton goes down injured – as happens frequently – Tom Croft will move over to openside.  Heaven help us, the Lions would never see the pill.  Sean O’Brien ticked all the boxes for the role of first reserve, and has been playing much better than Lydiate, who appears rusty since his injury.  It’s a bit of a pet selection, let’s hope it’s not costly.  We get the feeling Gatland ultimately wants Lydiate in the test team, and perhaps doesn’t fully trust Tom Croft.

Another strange selection on the bench is Maitland , who has failed to impress on the tour to date.  Simon Zebo outplayed him against the Waratahs and, again, appears the more impactful option.  Dare we suggest that this smacks a little of Power of Four tokenism?

The rest more or less picked themselves, with Cuthbert and Davies deputising for the injurd Bowe and Roberts.  As Dr Roberts diagnosed himself to nodding, confused medical staff against the Tahs, Gatty was surely sweating upstairs – and not just from being in such close proximity to Graham Rowntree. Roberts was not only the only specialist inside centre on tour, but he is/was a key component of the inside pass / bosh-it-up-the-shortside gameplan that the taciturn Kiwi ™ came to Oz with. In his absence, and that of Ooooooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi, it will be Johnny Davies lining up alongside Brian O’Driscoll in the centre. It’s always going to be a challenge getting your combinations right with such a limited lead-in time, and you certainly need the run of the green – losing half of your first-choice three-quarter line certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

In the second row, Alun Wyn Jones and Superman are forming the type of combination they threatened to four years ago, and they won’t be facing the greatest second-row in history. They wil at least be facing Tom Youngs who is the best thrower of the three available, but it will be a case of fingers crossed at lineout time – the one thing all three have in common is that they don’t look or play much like Jockey Wilson. The Wallabies will have noted that.

The other two glaring on-field weaknesses are at the breakdown and with the blitz defence. The tourists have yet to fully hit their stride at ruck time, but both the squad sevens would prefer Dan Lydiate to be in ironman form and not still getting up to speed. This has been an area of presumed Lions advantage since David Pocock got crocked, but that is being busily re-assessed. O’Connell and Jones are formidable breakdown forwards, but one or both could be asked to mke a high number of carries in a pack which is light in that area.

Getting everyone on board to the defensive system is proving a challenge as well – Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley enjoyed great success playing flat and threatening the gainline, in fact, the Lions looked to be hitting panic stations any time Cooper got the ball. The Wallaby inside backs – Will Genia, James O’Connor and Christian Leali’ifano – will surely have taken note, and doglegs will lead to Israel Folau running one on one with Alex Cuthbert – gulp.

This is an extremely difficult series to call. Injury-free and first choice, man-for-man, the Lions look stronger – Johnny Sexton looks the most capable fly-half in sight, they have a better set piece, and a phalanx of impactful backrow forwards (excepting, regretably, the one who will be required to make an impact – Lydiate). Their goal-kicker cannot miss. Australia look likely to without two of their three best players (Cooper and Pocock, with Genia the third) for the series.

But Australia have some in-built advantages – they have no worries about creating new combinations in three weeks, don’t have to farm the Japanese Top League for injury cover, and are at home (notionally in the case of Melbourne). What’s more, it’s going to be extremely close, and the Wobblies have an imposing record when that’s the case.

Since the beginning of 2011, Australia have played in 15 games which have been decided by seven points or less – they have won 13 (including against the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Wales and England), drawn one (NZ) and lost one – against Scotland in an absolute hurricane in Newcastle last year. That is a serious record in clutch games. The presumption from a lot of fans in the Northern Hemisphere is that Australia have a soft core, but that is far from the truth – they are experts at eking out results.

That, a settled squad, home advantage and niggling injuries are beginning to swing the momentum away from the Lions – the loss of Healy and Jenkins has left huge boots for Corbisiero and Vunipola to fill, and injuries in the afore-mentioned three-quarter line are dampening expectations, which have been sky high to date.

Be certain of one thing, there will be some epic rugby ahead – this summer has only just started its twisting and turning. Who’s going to win? Whiff of Cordite are united on this one in predicting a 2-1 series victory for Australia.  Predicting victories for Northern hemisphere sides (even, or perhaps especially, conglomerate ones) over the Southern hemisphere big three has proved an expensive strategy in recent years, and probably in distant ones too. The Lions will need to come out firing on all cylinders and win the first two tests to win the series, and , to be frank we can’t see it. If they are to win one, it will need to be the first, and to do that, they will need to be ahead after 60 minutes. Do they have the requisiste Plan B on the bench? Not in our opinion.

Backing the Lions to win anything is usually a guarantee of losing money.  Everyone is keen to talk up the great tradition of the Lions, but it is ultimately a losing tradition.  In this age, where defensive organisation and trust in established systems count for a huge amount of a team’s success or failure, can the Lions really put together winning recipes in a few busy weeks?  We expect they’ll come up short, but if they can win the series, it will be Gatland’s greatest triumph and he can expect to be head coach of the Kiwis when next they change coaches.