Leigh Halfpenny’s right boot
If Folau can win a game for Australia, Leigh Halfpenny can do so for the Lions, albeit in an entirely different manner. The Welshman’s metronomic boot shows no sign of tiring, having been off target just once so far this tour. It is an astonishing record, and in a series that is likely to be decided by the smallest of margins, having the most reliable goal-kicker in world rugby on your side is a huge advantage. To say he is just in the team for his kicking would be to do him a disservice, however, as there is no doubt that when given the chance he is a potent attacker. Sean Maitland’s presence on the bench in favour of Rob Kearney or Stuart Hogg points to – barring a calamitous injury – Halfpenny playing all 240 minutes of test rugby.
There’s no getting around it – and as much as backs would like to think they influence a game just as much – the majority of games are won and lost up front. If you can gain a solid platform at the set-piece and the breakdown, then you will have better and quicker ball to work with and you will end up on the front foot. Wales’ Six Nations demolition of England is a prime example of this. And while the Australians are by no means the feeble forward unit that they used to be, they do not possess the technical excellence and grizzled agression up front that the Lions do. Corbisiero’s selection proves that Gatland knows exactly where the tests will be won. Let the Australian backs run themselves silly from all corners of the pitch; the Lions will be perfectly content to grind their forwards down then turn on the flair when in the right areas.
The Australia factor
This works in two ways. It is unfair to paint the Wallabies as the ‘third’ Tri-Nations country, because their results on the international scene over the past few years rubbish that theory immediately. Still, psychologically the Lions will not be as intimidated as they would be coming up against a South African pack or a New Zealand back line. Coming into the first game as favourites, they will truly believe that they can and will win the series.
Secondly, it’s fair to say that of all the host countries, there’s no one we in the Home Nations like to beat more than the Aussies. Whether that’s a historical thing or because they can at times be insufferable to watch sport with (we’ve all been there), for one reason or another it is one of the most satisfying victories around. All of the home nations except Ireland have tasted defeat to Australia recently, and will be beyond pumped up to get their own back.
To name the opposition coach in a list of reasons why the Lions will win might seem odd, but his tenure thus far at the helm of Australian rugby has been mixed, if we’re being generous. The direct style of play he has encouraged has seen more creative players being shunned for safer options, especially in the backs. Quade Cooper’s continued omission is proof of this, and while Deans claims there is no bad blood there is that really believable? It is hard to imagine any other nation (barring perhaps New Zealand with their embarrassment of riches in the backs) leaving a player of Cooper’s talent out. Admittedly he has picked a much more progressive side for tomorrow, but it will intriguing to see what their game-plan is – if it is to play open rugby, will they be able to adapt quickly enough?
A few of the gutsier and more outspoken critics in Australia have said that they would take the hit of a series loss if it meant that Deans would get the sack. Such discord at the heart of the Australian game can only work in the Lions’ favour.
Leadership and experience
The Wallabies probably have more raw talent in their team, but that is not always what wins test matches. Sure, they might be capable of more moments of brilliance, but what wins the biggest games is a cool head and the experience of having been there before. The Lions win out in this category hands down, with born leaders making up the spine of the team.
Adam Jones is a grizzled warhorse that has seen it all before in the front row; Paul O’Connell’s manic aggression needs no introduction; Sam Warburton is a captain that leads by example; Mike Phillips is a warrior-like scrum-half that will do anything for his side; Johnny Sexton once single-handedly inspired his Leinster side to a second half performance the likes of which few have seen; and Brian O’Driscoll is a veteran of four Lions tours, desperate to finally get a win. The same levels of experience and leadership simply are not present in the Australian team.
Disagree? Check out our five reasons why the Wallabies will win the series
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43