Well, I think it’s safe to say that the last few days have been nothing if not eventful. If you have been following the British Lions tour of Australia you will know exactly what I mean.
Before we get into that, lets have a look back on last weeks second test in Melbourne. As with the first test, this was another build up being dominated mainly by something other than the rugby, namely the inclusion of captain James Horwill in the Australian side after being cited for an alleged head stamp on Alun Wyn Jones.
The match is itself was something of a game of cat and mouse with neither side really making inroads in terms of scoring opportunities, although watching from the sidelines you sensed that Australia were the ones with more attacking fluency of the two teams and so this was to prove. The Lions, as with many games before were able to rely on the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and with Sam Warburton rampant at the breakdown there were a number of opportunities for him to make hay. One area that was supposed to be a strength for the Lions, the scrum, was somewhat disappointing with Vunipola being pinged on a number of occasions early doors, mainly for not scrummaging straight with the result that the scrums were collapsing. This kept the Australian scoreboard ticking over and the Lions will take note for the final test with Corbisiero brought in for extra ballast.
With the Lions sitting back on a lead in the second half you could feel the momentum building with the Australians and eventually this told with centre Adam Ashley Cooper going over for a try. Even with that try late on, the game still had one last twist for us with Halfpenny given the opportunity to win it with a penalty kick just inside his own half. Everyone watched, hearts in mouth as the ball dropped just short and Australia celebrated the series leveller. You could not begrudge them the win, they were simply the better team. As I said last week, my head was saying an Australian win, unfortunately my prediction came from my heart.
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So onto this week then, obviously we should have been talking about the teams, the match up’s, the potential try scorers and of course the result! But no, before all that, the rugby watching world took a sharp intake of breath when they realised what for some, was unthinkable in the last 12 or so years, Brian O’Driscoll had been dropped. Not just from the team, but from the entire squad.
The media went into collective meltdown with some of the outbursts verging on the ridiculous. Respected commentators of the game could barely contain their disgust at the decision to drop one of the Lions icons. Despite my shock at his being dropped, I decided not follow the standard line and actually look at how O’Driscoll has played this tour, specifically in those two tests. The first thing that stands out is his tackling, 23 completed, 0 missed. Impressive by anyone’s standards and certainly to be applauded. But rugby, although built on defence is ultimately about attacking your opposition and scoring tries. O’Driscoll hasn’t really created anything in this aspect of the game, you get the feeling that the mind is willing but the legs just don’t quite have it. Finally, many have talked about his leadership skills, but his “relationship” with Pollock (the referee in the 1st test) was anything but friendly and after Warburton went off on Saturday, when O’Driscoll picked up the captains armband, the Lions did nothing to suggest improvement, in fact they got worse and lost the game. Although I grant you that may have been down to Warburton’s departure from the field.
That change, along with a number of others suggests a bold if not unfamiliar change in approach from Gatland. This is a must win game for him and I think he knows it, for once the normally pragmatic Gatland went all out. He’s picked 10 Welshmen, but that really is irrelevant, this is the Lions and we should remember that. His plan should be simple to guess, he is going to steamroller the opposition, with big men Mike Philips, Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau all coming back into the team, the Australian back line is going to have their hands full. They will be battered for the full 80 minutes, both up front and in the backs which makes Deans decision to have a 6:2 split on the bench somewhat curious, s especially after the injuries suffered in the first test.
We keep going back to it, but the battle of the breakdown will once again be a key battle. Australia have brought in veteran George Smith to their starting line-up with the Lions replacing Warburton with Sean O’Brian. Whoever rules supreme here along with the scrummage, should win the match. But then you never know.
Looking at outsiders to score, I’m thinking Toby Faletau to come up with something special from the back of an advancing scrum. Elsewhere you have North and Folau, both of whom have proved lethal finishers thus far and you would not be surprised if there were fireworks once again between them (Who can forget North’s lift last week) with both getting in for scores. I also fancy Jamie Roberts to go well, despite his injury, he’s a big game player and thrives on that pressure despite not scoring a great deal of tries.
Halfpenny to go 100% with his kicks this week, is my final shout for this series.
Saturday is a big day in Lions history and could be one that goes down in the annals as a rare series win but I think it will be tough. Australia are on a bit of a roll now, but like Gatland, I’m going for it and backing the team 100%. Lions to win by 9 with Halfpenny man of the match.
Lions to win by 6-10 points @ 5/1
Anytime Try Scorer =
Israel Folau @ 15/8
George North @ 9/4
Toby Faletau @ 7/1
Man of the Match = Leigh Halfpenny @ 8/1 Ladbrokes – Sign up for a Ladbrokes account and £30 in free bets here.
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).
Australia team: Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels), Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali'ifano (ACT Brumbies), Joe Tomane (Brumbies), James O'Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds – capt), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), George Smith (Brumbies), Wycliff Palu (NSW).
Replacements: Saia Fainga'a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), Sekope Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Ben McCalman (Western Force), Michael Hooper (NSW), Nick Phipps (Rebels), Jesse Mogg (Brumbies).
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