So once again it all comes down to Sydney. 12 years ago the Lions stormed into an impressive series lead, only to be pegged back and ultimately overcome by a resurgent Wallabies team. Will history repeat itself this weekend? Momentum is a word oft overused in sport, but there is no doubt this time that it all belongs to Australia. They are the ones coming off the back of a win, and they are the ones with a more settled team. The two tests thus far have been strikingly dissimilar; the first an open, entertaining affair, the second a cagey, tight arm-wrestle. As much as we want to see running rugby, neither sets of fans will care for aesthetics provided their team wins this weekend.
British and Irish Lions
It is tough to write a preview of the Lions team without going over the points that have been done to death this week already. Shock was the main reaction to the team announcement – Gatland’s selection was, weirdly enough, both safe and daring. Safe in the sense that he has trusted players that he knows from his time with Wales, and daring in the sense that he has made plenty of changes where many thought they weren’t necessary. Oh, and he dropped O’Driscoll, in case you hadn’t heard that yet (it’s not been reported very well).
So it is a team that has been picked to do a job: beat up the Aussies. In come big men Richard Hibbard, Sean O’Brien, Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts, and out go players with a little more guile like the Youngs brothers and O’Driscoll. The Lions’ game-plan may be obvious, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. Roberts and Davies in the centres have had plenty of success in the past, and with Sexton inside them – a more astute distributer than they are used to playing in Wales colours – they could be even more dangerous. Sexton will certainly be confident of getting Roberts running the exact right lines – but do not be surprised to see him using the big 12 as a decoy and employing the wrap-around that he loves so much.
The pack looks beastly, with Hibbard adding ballast to the front row and Corbisiero back in to (hopefully) shore up the scrums. The Welsh hooker’s line-out work will be under scrutiny after a less-than perfect tour in this area, while so-called line-out guru Parling will be keen to have things running more smoothly than last week. The lack of an obvious back-row jumper will not help, with neither Heaslip nor Croft in the squad. Alun-Wyn Jones is the man tasked with captaincy, and what a day it will be for him. A player who always wears his heart on his sleeve, and who has had an excellent tour on the pitch, it is no less than the towering Welshman deserves.
Key players: Dan Lydiate and Sean O’Brien
The presence of George Smith amongst the opposition’s ranks means these two have an almighty job on their hands. O’Brien has been picked to give the Lions front foot ball, which they have been lacking somewhat, but he is not as good at the breakdown as either Warburton (whose injury could not have come at a worse time) or Tipuric. He will need Lydiate’s help to nullify the Australian great’s influence in this area, while the blindside will also be tasked with shackling the heartbeat of the Aussie side, Will Genia. He needs to be right at the top of his game.
They look settled. The only change to the team that won by a point last week is the call-up of George Smith, who completes a quite remarkable comeback after four years in the international wilderness. He is a breakdown master, and will steal the Lions ball at any given opportunity. Alongside him Wycliff Palu has had a very quiet series, but the new boy Brumbie Ben Mowen has been exemplary, disrupting the Lions’ line-out and patrolling the fringes to keep Phillips and Youngs in check.
Their front row will be in for their sternest examination yet, with the Lions selecting a powerful scrummaging unit. Alexander and Robinson have held their own so far, but will have to step it up a notch this week. James Horwill is their talisman, and his sidestep of a ban was more valuable than any he has ever produced on the pitch.
The back-line is brimming with pace and invention, and while O’Connor has been average in the 10 jersey do not be surprised to see Kurtley Beale stepping up from fullback into the role fairly often. Adam Ashley-Cooper is the glue in the midfield and is a wily attacker as well, as evidenced by his try last weekend. We all know what Israel Folau can do – let’s hope he’s kept as quiet as last week.
Interestingly, Deans has plumped for a six-two forwards-backs split on the bench, indicating he knows exactly where the game will be won and lost. Risky as it may seem – given the way his backs dropped like flies in the first test – there is enough versatility in the back-line to cover all but the worst crisis.
Key player: James O’Connor
Many have speculated that had a genuine outside half started the first two tests, the series would have been won by now. If that is a little unfair, there is no doubt that O’Connor has looked out of sorts in the 10 jersey so far. He has been standing too deep and has not controlled the game as natural fly-half does. This week he must repay the faith shown in him by coach Robbie Deans and work on getting a back-line firing that contains some outrageous talent, of which we have not yet seen the best.
If the first two tests were tough to call, this is on another level. Basically, it all depends on whether the Lions’ power game is enough to drive them to a win. If it isn’t, it is tough to see where the subtelty is going to come from to turn the game around. The Australians will be confident, but with 16 years of historical hurt pulling them through, could this finally be the Lions’ time? Lions by 4.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43