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.
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.
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