After last week’s nerve-shredder in Brisbane, the sea of red rolls into Melbourne for the second and potentially series-defining test. If the first test was tense, this could be on another level. Both sides have made changes, enforced or otherwise, so there will be some new combinations on show.
British and Irish Lions
Warren Gatland has shown his ruthless side in making five changes to the side that won last weekend, with only two of these due to injury. Mako Vunipola comes onto the loose-head side of the scrum for the injured Corbisiero, with Geoff Parling in the engine room for Paul O’Connell. This should have a positive impact in the loose, with Vunipola’s rampaging ball-carrying, and at the line-out, where Parling is one of the shrewdest operators around.
In the back row Dan Lydiate fills Tom Croft’s boots, possibly showing Gatland’s fear that without O’Connell and Corbisiero the pack is a bit lightweight – Lydiate is certainly a more combative option than the languid Croft. Behind the scrum, Ben Youngs is preferred to Mike Phillips, who drops out of the 23 entirely – according to Gatland because he is being rested for the final test, but at such a pivotal moment in the series that is surely just an excuse. He was poor last week, not finding a way to imprint his style onto the game and the quicker service and pace of Youngs is a sensible change for this week, especially opposite the live-wire Genia.
Tommy Bowe also comes into the team at the expense of Alex Cuthbert, marking a miraculous recovery from a broken hand suffered just three weeks ago. His partnership with George North had looked lethal until then, and Lions fans will hope they can hook up again in the same way. Davies and O’Driscoll continue in the centres, with Tuilagi apparently not having done enough to convince Gatland he is worthy of inclusion.
On the bench he has gone for the bold call of having no specialist lock, with Tom Croft able to cover there. The danger is that if one of the first choice second rows – particularly the giant Alun-Wyn Jones – gets injured early on, the Lions scrum becomes extremely lightweight. We saw what happened last weekend when the first choice scrummaging unit went off – would the Lions be able to cope with a whole game like that? Probably not.
Key player: Leigh Halfpenny
Halfpenny underlined his importance again last week with another near-flawless goal-kicking display, that ultimately made the difference on the scoreboard. With the whistle-happy Craig Joubert in charge this week – he awarded a record 28 penalties in the recent Scotland v Wales Six Nations match – there are likely to be plenty more opportunities for Halfpenny to punish the Australians again. If he is successful, it will be a huge ask for the men in gold to win this one.
Despite an injury-ridden first test – particularly behind the scrum – Robbie Deans has named arguably an even more lethal looking back-line this weekend. He has chosen to back James O’Connor at fly-half despite the Melbourne Rebel, who has spent more playing time elsewhere in the back-line, having a mixed time of things last weekend. In fact his clubmate Kurtley Beale, who starts at fullback, usually takes the no.10 jersey at the Rebels, with O’Connor at 15. Once again this highlights the disenchantment and difference in thinking of the national set-up and the franchises.
Up front Ben Alexander will be licking his lips at the prospect of getting stuck into Mako Vunipola in the scrum – in fact the whole pack will be confident of having the upper hand here with the absence of Corbisiero and O’Connell from the Lions’ ranks. Ben Mowen was integral in the shackling of Mike Phillips in the first test – he will have his work cut out this week against the livelier Ben Youngs.
Adam Ashley-Cooper has recovered sufficiently to retake his place at outside centre, partnering again Christian Leali’ifano. Outside him Joe Tomane comes onto the wing in place of the injured Digby Ioane, while Israel Folau, who showcased last week his outrageous ability, continues on the other flank. It is a devilishly exciting back-line, and one that surely cannot suffer the same spate of unfortunate injuries as last weekend.
Key player: Christian Leali’ifano
The Brumbie inside centre went off after 30 seconds in the first test – technically his debut – so will be hoping to get a rather longer taste of international rugby this time round. As has been stated already, with Joubert in charge there will probably be plenty of opportunities to kick at goal, and if Leali’ifano is entrusted with the kicking repsonsibilties – as he was supposed to be last weekend – he will undoubtedly be the key player. As a much better distributor and runner than Pat McCabe, his replacement in the first test, he is also vital to the Wallaby game-plan, and with backs outside him the calibre of Folau and Beale, he is the creative linchpin in the midfield.
It doesn’t get any easier. The Lions pack looks less likely to dominate, especially at scrum-time, than last week, meaning the Australian back-line – which looks just lethal – could have a greater bearing on the game. With Craig Joubert in charge, however, there will be plenty of chances to kick for points and in this category the Lions, with Leigh Halfpenny, win hands down. For that reason I think it will be another narrow Lions win, bringing them their first series victory since 1997. Lions by 2.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43