The final tour game prior to the beginning of the test series sees the Lions travel to Canberra to take on the Brumbies, and given the strengths of the two squads selected, it could well be their biggest challenge to date.
British and Irish Lions
It’s been a busy week for Warren Gatland’s side who, thanks to a number of injuries, have had to call up the likes of Christian Wade, Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt as cover, whilst Welsh legend Shane Williams has been drafted in with the sole purpose of taking on the Brumbies, and allowing other Lions the chance to rest up ahead of the first test. All four of these players start against the Brumbies, whilst full-back Rob Kearney makes his first start on tour, and Stuart Hogg and Ben Youngs get their last opportunities to try and force their way into Gatland’s test squad. They face the talented duo of Jesse Mogg and Henry Speight in the Brumbies back line, and if they can perform well against this calibre of opposition, there is an outside chance they could yet feature in the first test, especially with both Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe almost certainly ruled out, and George North’s hamstring still raising concerns.
Outside of loosehead prop, the Lions have thus far enjoyed a relatively injury free tour in the pack, and many of the forwards selected for the Brumbies game will face an uphill battle to be in contention for that first test squad. Rory Best, who captains the side, will attempt to resolve the lineout troubles that have plagued him of late, whilst the nicely balanced back row combination of Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau will all want to add to Gatland’s selection nightmare in that area. Although the Brumbies pack is bolstered by the returns of Peter Kimlin and Scott Sio from the Wallaby squad, the Lions will be looking to dominate at the breakdown and set piece, and provide a solid platform for an as yet untested back line, and ease their transition into the tour as much as possible.
One to watch: Christian Wade
The winger was a real candidate to be a bolter when Gatland announced his initial squad, but will instead have to take his chance in this fashion instead. The popular criticism of Wade is that his defence is poor, and that he is a liability under the high ball, but these are areas of Wade’s game which have come on leaps and bounds in the last season, and Wade was superb under the high ball as recently as England’s first test against Argentina. If the Lions can get him the ball in space, Wade could cause havoc against the Brumbies back line, and potentially push himself into a position to be an x-factor in the latter tests.
The Brumbies have been severely depleted by the Wallabies, losing the likes of Ben Alexander, Ben Mowen and Stephen Moore in their pack, as well as Christian Lealiifano and Pat McCabe from their backs, and although they have one of the deeper squads amongst the Australian franchises, their replacements are a significant drop-off in quality.
The Brumbies back row combination of Scott Fardy, Colby Faingaa and Kimlin should not be underestimated, and will be highly competitive with the Lions’ unit, providing a stern test for those men seeking to upset the odds and make the test squad. The front row of Ruan Smith, Siliva Siliva and Sio is another powerful group, and although they’re shorn of Alexander and Moore, should still provide a strong challenge to Ryan Grant, Matt Stevens and Best.
Not only have the Brumbies been the form Australian team, but arguably also the form team in all of Super Rugby. They currently top the table, and would like nothing more than to add the Lions’ scalp to what already promises to be a very successful season for the franchise.
One to watch: Henry Speight
Speight has been sensational for the Brumbies this season, illustrated by the fact he is currently the joint-top try scorer in Super Rugby, and could give the new look Lions back line real problems if he is not looked after. Speight would be with the Wallaby squad if it were not for an issue with his eligibility yet to be concluded, but the Lions should not make the mistake of taking Speight lightly, as he is, without doubt, an international quality winger.
This game has all the hallmarks of a potential banana skin for the Lions. Whilst the addition of Wade could add reassurance to the fans, with so many new arrivals in the back line, fluency is likely to be at a premium for the visitors, and this could be dangerous with the likes of Speight and Mogg lined up opposite them. That being said, the Lions should have an edge in the forwards, and if they can give the likes of Twelvetrees, Wade and Kearney a good platform, scoring opportunities will arise. Lions by 5.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)