Australia v British and Irish Lions: Preview and prediction

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The wait is almost over. In a little over 24 hours, four years of speculation and build-up will finally come to an end and the British and Irish Lions will take to the test arena once more. Standing in their way are an Australia team that has had its fair share of issues in the past year, but has still managed to be a formidable opponent, not least to Northern Hemisphere opposition. The first test is vitally important, and while the Wallabies will have memories of coming back from 1-0 down in 2001 it is not a situation either side wants to find themselves in as it makes the margin for error in the remaining two tests even smaller.

British and Irish Lions

Warren Gatland’s starting XV provided few surprises, given form on the tour and his preferred style of play. Injuries forced his hand in the centres, where Jonathan Davies partners Brian O’Driscoll, but the Welshman has been in fantastic form and would have been pushing hard for a starting spot as it is. Outside them it is the Welsh back three that will be charged with causing havoc against an infinitely less-settled Australian combination, and that cohesion could be key.

Up front Alex Corbisiero gets the nod ahead of Mako Vunipola, whose scrummaging was cited as a reason for his exclusion. Several scrummaging experts (not to mention commenters below!) have pointed out that he has a tendency to bore in, something which would have been pounced upon by the Aussie coaches and players. Corbisiero’s selection points to Gatland’s plan to demolish the Wallaby scrum. Alun-Wyn Jones takes the other spot in the engine room next to Paul O’Connell, while in the back row it is as you were against the Waratahs. Croft and Heaslip compliment captain Warburton in a trio that has pace, power and doggedness in equal measure.

The bench is where doubts start to creep in. Dan Lydiate is a fine player but has not been on top form and can only cover blindside. If Warburton suffers injury early on, the Lions are going to find it tough going at the breakdown, given the presence of both Michael Hooper and Liam Gill in the Australian squad. Sean Maitland is another lucky to make the substitutes, as he has hardly been in great form so far. Hogg and Zebo can both feel slightly aggrieved (especially the Scot), but Gatland has put his faith in Maitland’s finishing ability.

Key players: Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll

O’Connell and O’Driscoll have five Lions tours between them (although BOD’s involvement in 2005 was cut cruelly short), and no victories. On what will be their last, no-one will bring more desire to win to the pitch than these two veterans. Leadership on the pitch is of vital importance to any side, and with these two combining with captain Warburton in the back-row the Lions have a backbone of experienced leaders that can inspire the team around them. As funny and charming off the pitch as talented on it, no-one outside of Australia would begrudge them a win here.

Australia

The build-up to the Australian squad and team announcement was one of discord Down Under, where many commentators’ disdain for ‘Dingo Deans’ and his selection policy was obvious. However, the team eventually selected has been met with quiet enthusiasm from Australian rugby experts.

The back-line, though inexperienced, looks lethal. Will Genia is the best in his position in the world, and while James O’Connor outside him has only started one test at no.10, his experience at fullback and winger means he loves to run with the ball and will attack the Lions’ line. Christian Leali’ifano was one of the shock inclusions. The uncapped Brumbie was expected to lose out to Pat McCabe, whose one-dimensional style would certainly have been more welcome to the Lions defence. Leali’ifano, on the other hand, can distribute, run and kick with aplomb, and with experience at fly-half expect him to come in at first receiver on occasion. Outside him Israel Folau, the towering cross code international, makes his debut after just 13 games in rugby union – that tells you exactly how special a talent he is. On the other wing the fleet of foot and deceptive pace of Digby Ioane will keep Alex Cuthbert busy, a man who has already been found wanting defensively on a couple of occasions this tour.

The pack, although not nearly as undercooked as some Wallaby units have looked in recent years, is where they may still struggle. Ben Alexander is a fine carrier in the loose, but question marks have arisen at times over his scrummaging. Up against Corbisiero, he will have his work cut out – you just wonder if perhaps they were expecting Mako Vunipola to start there, and thus went for the more explosive carrier than scrummager. There is a first cap for Brumbies captain Ben Mowen on the blindside, a giant man whose prowess at the line-out will keep Tom Croft busy. James Horwill is up there with the very best in the engine room, while Wycliff Palu, although not in great form, is on his day an exceptional ball carrier.

Key Player: Michael Hooper

No David Pocock, no George Smith… no matter. Hooper is cut from the same cloth, a fetcher and traditional openside that loves to get his hands dirty. His battle with Warburton will be fascinating, and with the Lions neglecting to name a specialist openside on the bench Hooper will know that if he can get the better of the Welshman early on it will be a long way back for him. The breakdown is so important these days, and Hooper will be confident of bossing it. Watch out for his pace, too – him against Croft could be quite a race.

Prediction

We’ve all been mulling this over for weeks, and now it’s so tough to stick your neck on the line. It’s very much head vs heart – the heart says the Lions will pull together and get off to a winning start, and the head says that at home, with such a talented and explosive back-line, the Wallabies will win it. For now, I’ll stick my neck out and say Gatland’s plan to boss the set-piece will work and that will be enough to sneak it, with Halfpenny again on song with the boot. Lions by 3.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

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38 comments on “Australia v British and Irish Lions: Preview and prediction

  1. My last comment was removed I suspect because it contained a link to an interesting article. Anyway the gist was that we can’t rely on penalty taking superiority as most of ours would be earned at the scrum and the ref, Chris Pollock, awards very few. The article can be found in The Austrlian and can be found if you search for Conservative Kiwi referee Chris Pollock ideal to control first Lions test. Worth a read, the Aussies are obviously happy with him.

  2. Whilst I take the point that the Aussies will be well prepared, so will then Lions. There is a lot that has not been seen on this tour and I believe that this also had a lot to do with ‘drafting-in’ players for the last mid-week game; victory would have been good, but not essential. The injuries and the effect this will have had on the preparations and the bench will be a factor but with the team that Gatland has picked, all 25, will beat the Aussies by two scores (brave statement) at least in this 1st test. It is the second test that will be the crux as the Aussies will have meet the fire and will be given the ammunition to play what is in front of them, nothing hidden. This 2nd test will be the closest of the tests played as they will no doubt be injuries and the backs is where I feel the Lions do not have that depth of cover. Prediction Australia 22; Lions 36.

  3. So close, it comes down to which proves to be the best way to prepare for a test, is it:
    A) Playing games at sub test intensity
    B) Training camp

    Can the Wallabies find a first 20 mins at an intensity the Lions haven’t seen yet and struggle with? Or do their new combinations and inexperience in key positions mean they take a while to get going?

    Not playing doesn’t seem to be the best way to prepare, particularly with new combinations, so think this will be the decisive factor in the first test. Lions by 10!

    Agree with RugbyMadDog, how many players come through the first test unscathed will be a major factor in second test. Wallabies can’t lose too many more forwards, Lions won’t want any more backs out of commission.

  4. Should have added I completely agree that POC and BOD are the keys. They know it’s their last shot at winning something of a global historical significance. Seeing how desperate they are for it will lift and inspire the team. Oh to be a fly on the wall the hear the pre-match words!

  5. A team made up of 8 Welshman who have lost repeatedly to Australia- in Aussie, in NZ & most recently in Wales. Sprinkled with much vaunted English players who were most recently humbled at Twickenham by a undermanned Wallabes outfit.

    At Fortress Suncorp- where the Wallabies rarely ever lose. Even the All Blacks struggle there.

    Wallabies by 8.

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