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. Great preview. I suspect it wil be close too bit I reckon a last minute Farrell penatly will win it for the Lions.

    • The irony if Farrell became a Lions hero! Lots of water to go under the bridge yet, but I like your thinking!

      To be fair, this game is likely to be close and the kickers could well decide things. I think that we just have the edge in that department.

    • I like you’re thinking, but Farrell will only be kicking penalties if Halfpenny goes off, and I think it more likely that Cuthbert or North will be subbed before Halfpenny.

  2. As much as i would love the Lions to win i think Australia will win the first match and the series . Their squad looks stronger the full 15 and bench.The welsh lads in the Lions squad including North won’t do with poor form against the Wallabies , don’t have the cutting edge. Warburton will be a nobody against the Aussie backrowers.This tour will end up like the Lions 2005 tour to New Zealand a whitewash and the complete demolition of the Lions

    • Yeah airborne, we should have picked players who have a better record against Aus, so not the welsh, but conversely those players have a poor record against Wales, so … ahh… headache trying to work out the logic now. Maybe I’ll just have go with the old fashioned “pick the best” players approach rather than the mathematically proven approach of A beat B before so must pick A even though C beat A but lost to B…

    • I think (apart from a couple of positions) this is the strongest team, and the best players in their respective positions no matter who we’re playing. The theory that we’re playing Australia, and that Wales have a bad record against them means nothing in this environment. The team as a whole have enough experience and playing ability to overcome the Aussies, no matter who they play for come the Six Nations and autumn internationals. Got through the team and tell me who should replace those Welsh players included, and I’m sure you would not find more then 3 or 4 players who could realistically be any better on current form.

  3. the Lions to sneak it….just but it depneds on if Gatland has a plan B if things go wrong.

  4. Lions to win a close one. Up front dominance to be enough to get ball to our backs.

    I too am concerned with the backrow bench cover, nobody there to open things up. I wish Bowe was fit, I’d feel a lot more confident if Bowe was fit. I am actually very happy with the centres. Maybe the Kiwi’s had something right when they picked JD in their World XV?

    • That is a good read. I find this part mystifying – “which gives hope that the scrum battle will not become all-consuming as it did during this year’s Six Nations tournament”. Do the Aussies even like rugby? Why are they obsessed with removing time spent at scrums? Why do they view scrum dominated matches as a failure? Why do they even bother playing rugby if they see a core component of it as just a bit of a nuisance, something that supposedly only the NH sides are obsessed with? It would be like playing football but working hard to get free kicks removed from it.

      • No-one can seriously claim the scrum is a good thing in top level rugby at the moment.

        While I don’t agree that relying on a strong pack is “negative rugby”, the fact is that the scrum could go either way, and if the ref doesn’t like the way we are packing down, the wheels could come off very bloody quickly.

      • You’ve also got to remember that the Aussies view Rugby Union through Aussie Rules and Rugby League tinted glasses. No scrummaging to speak of in those codes!

        • Staggy, that’s what I don’t understand – they’re so obsessed with turning RU into RL why don’t they just give up and focus on RL? It would be like Americans demanding forward passes, blocking, offensive/defensive teams etc. be added to rugby.

          • I refer you to my previous comment – it’s because they can’t scrummage!

            If they could they wouldn’t moan about it.

    • I think the point is that Gats is relying on the pack (and the boot) to get us through. If that doesn’t work, what then?

      BOD will win it for us. If he doesn’t end up getting carried off after 10 mins :-(

    • Interesting article, thanks for posting.

      Strange they seem to have airbrushed the scrum splintered loss in Paris out of recent history. Or how as a result that they decided cheat/outsmart (delete depending on your perspective) England next week by going head-to-head rather than a legitimate contest.

      In general though I think the Wallaby scrum will be good enough for them to get the ball in and out without too much damage. Though I fancy the Lions to come on strong with the replacements, especially Hibbard Vs Fainga.

    • I watched Pollock ref the first test between England and the Argies recently, and thought he had a very good game. So much so that most of time he didn’t need to get involved.

  5. Nah Steve lad you know deep down this Lions squad haven’t got the chance.Brighty it doesn’t matter if those welsh lads are better but they can play better against other opponents they still haven’t come up with the goods against the wallabies , they will have to keep in mind that it’s not only going to be a physical battle but mentally as well . i hope those welsh lads are tough mentally against a smarter opposition like the wallabies

    • Brighty ignore him. He’s trolling!

      Anyway it’s fine you’ve got the English boys to help you with mental strength……….!!

      Just joking and please don’t mention Cardiff!

      Pretty much the best team has been picked injuries aside, probably the main issue will be Gats game plan. We wait and see.

      • Staggy, I actually think “Anyway it’s fine you’ve got the English boys to help you with mental strength……….!!” is a bit of a seriously good point. That’s the beauty of the Lions – it’s not Wales playing Aus, it’s B&I playing Aus even with 8 Welsh players. As we’d all hope I think this collective will be mentally stronger than our individual sides and that is something that even I have to concede will be a bonus for the Welsh boys.

        By the way, even though I didn’t mention Cardiff I am thinking about it again and grinning while I type…

  6. For me I’m going Austraila by 10. I think the scrum and lineout will be pretty even. Aus scrum hasn’t been that bad lately and they will have been analyisng ours for the last 3 weeks.

    I can’t see us winning the breakdown at all. Warburton hasn’t got his world cup form back here and Aus have the best flankers in the world. The Lions defence has been pretty ropey so with us struggling at the breakdown I think they will find holes to let their lethal back line break through.

    I have been impressed by Lions attacking play though so I expect us to run in a few good tries but Im pretty positive it won’t be enough.

  7. Interesting point. Are the Lions mentally tougher because they take the best bits from each nations psyche, or are they weaker mentally because they are made up of 4 disparate nations with different viewpoints (albeit with a common cultural background).

    Personally I think that it is down to the coach and how he melds his players. You have English teams with strong mental resilience and others who crumble, so I’m not convinced it’s an English/Welsh thing.

    What will undoubtedly help is that you have some very experienced players who have been through the mental wringer on many occasions and know how to cope with it and how to help their team mates through, and probably 4 different perspectives on how to cope, so choose the best one!

    As stated, interesting concept!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.