Lions vs Australia 1st Test – 5 Key Battle Areas

With both the Lions and Australia teams now selected and confirmed, it’s time to look ahead to the key areas which will decide who ultimately emerges victorious from the first test in Brisbane.

Set Piece

One of Warren Gatland’s hardest selection decisions must have been giving Alex Corbisiero the nod at loosehead over Mako Vunipola. Vunipola has been superb so far on tour, and although you can only play the opposition in front of you, which Vunipola did magnificently, Corbisiero is a proven scrummager against the best in the world, and should help give the Lions an edge in the scrum. The selection of Tom Youngs at hooker may have surprised some, especially given that Richard Hibbard is widely regarded as the stronger scrummager of the pair, but Hibbard’s poor lineout throwing has not gone unnoticed, and Gatland clearly doesn’t perceive Youngs to be as weak a scrummager as some would have you believe. With the impeccable Adam Jones holding down the tighthead spot, and the likes of Dan Cole, Hibbard and Vunipola on the bench, the Lions should at least be aiming for parity at scrum time.

The selection of Youngs and Tom Croft should be a welcome salvation to the Lions’ lineout woes thus far, and locks Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell are certainly no slouches in this area of the game either. The throwing of Youngs has been accurate so far, and if for any reason he has trouble hitting his jumpers at the back of the lineout, the Leicester Tiger can always revert to his tried and tested formula of hitting Croft as the first jumper, giving the Lions an important security blanket. Speaking of security blankets, Geoff Parling offers himself as a lineout maestro from the bench, and can be brought on to shore up any problems that may arise.

Verdict: The Lions have a slight advantage at the scrum, and could well buck the trend of the tour so far, and outplay Australia at the lineout.


The biggest concern with Gatland’s selection seems to revolve around the breakdown, and whether or not this team can match Australia in that area. Whilst it’s true Croft and Jamie Heaslip are at their best with ball in hand, they showed their ability at the breakdown against the Waratahs, helping out Sam Warburton considerably, and the question now is whether or not they can do something similar against the step up in class that is Australia. The real key to this battle however will be Warburton himself, and whether or not he can outplay Australia’s Michael Hooper. If Warburton replicates his form from the Waratahs game, he will be a match for Hooper, and if he can find the form that helped lead Wales to a World Cup semi-final, he could even outplay his adversary. The ability of AW Jones and Cole (off the bench) at the breakdown shouldn’t be underestimated either, and whilst Australia might have an advantage at the breakdown in the back row, the Lions certainly have it in the tight five.

Verdict: Too close to call, but at a push, Australia to edge it. Just.

Goal kicking

Australia have a great goal kicker in James O’Connor (and Berrick Barnes and Christian Lealiifano are no fools either), but he certainly plays second fiddle to Leigh Halfpenny. The Welsh fullback is in excellent form and it would take a monstrous knock to his confidence to see him fail to outshine his opposition in this category. Owen Farrell also offers a deadly accurate boot from the bench, and Jonathan Sexton’s kicking is also certainly a match for the trio of O’Connor, Barnes and Lealiifano.

Verdict: A category that is often scoffed at, but could prove pivotal in this test series. Lions have the edge.


If Jamie Roberts had been fit (or Manu Tuilagi, given that Tuilagi plays in a similar style to Roberts), the Lions would have the edge, but the lack of playing time together for Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies is slightly worrying. If both players can replicate their best form so far on tour, they will almost certainly come out on top, but their similar playing styles and lack of a physical brute in the midfield clearly alters Gatland’s initial game plan. Admittedly, the Australian duo of Lealiifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper have limited experience together as well, but will have most likely been training together for some time now, in the knowledge that they will probably both be starting in the centres.

Verdict: All depends on how quickly Davies and O’Driscoll gel – Australia could well have the advantage in the first half, and the Lions in the second.


The Lions will be out to prove that the age-old adage of defences being stronger in the Northern Hemispheres is certainly no myth, and looking at their squad, there is no reason to believe they won’t. Even players such as Croft and Heaslip, who are often unfairly labelled as ‘lazy’, are formidable tacklers, and certainly won’t prove to be weak links in the Lions’ defence. Scrum-half Mike Phillips could really come into his own here, especially if he can use his physicality to help negate the potent attacking threat of Will Genia. Winger Alex Cuthbert has had his defence criticised so far on tour, and he could well find himself targeted by the likes of Israel Folau, who himself could be targeted by the Lions, and Digby Ioane.

Verdict: The Lions 1-15 are better defenders, not to mention the likes of Dan Lydiate and Farrell on the bench, and should have an edge over Australia. They will however likely need this edge, as Australia should be more cohesive and fluent in attack than the Lions in this first test.

The Lions just about have the edge in the sports betting but it’s going to be tight!

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

16 thoughts on “Lions vs Australia 1st Test – 5 Key Battle Areas

  1. Bit worried about the breakdown – if Sam has an injury then we’re Lydiate/Croft/Heaslip – who’s going to get the ball or prevent Aus from having quick ball?

    I’ve met JD and he looked massive to me. 105K for a shorter (relatively) bloke is still a big lump to stop. SOB is 108K and he’s no slouch at trying to commit the opposition.

    Vuni has looked to have issues at scrumtime for me – boring in especially, the Aussies will, as Gatland says, noted this and will be both trying to make it happen and point it out to the ref so I’m happy we have the right starting front row.

    1. How heavy was Scott Gibbs? I wouldn’t have thought that he was much heavier, but very compact. I might be wrong.

      Anyway don’t see JD’s size as an issue as long as Gats doesn’t ask him to play like JR or Manu, because that’s not him. Am worried that he might after what he put 36 through on Tues.

    2. i would expect Heaslip to take on the more traditional 7 role if something happens to Warburton. i think he is the best suited to it of the 3 remaining. he will still pack down at 8 though. if something did happen to sam, it would be interesting to see which players moved to 7. Lydiate has the good tackling, but croft’s pace could be used to put pressure on JOC.

      agree with you regarding JD. he is not small at all. he started out with scarlets as a 12 if i am not mistaken, so he will do fine. the great news for him is that the man opposite him isnt McCabe. Leali’ifano isnt a bad defender, but he is weaker than McCabe, so JD should find the bosh game a bit easier.

      agree with the point about the scrum, i think that Bob Dywer’s comments have helped Corbs make the starting team. I also think that they needed a scrummaging 1 to partner Youngs. and finally, Vunipola is best suited to that impact role. Hibbard will come on and scrummage from 2, which should help Vunipola at scrum time.

      the tight 5, and bench tight 5 players, seems to have picked itself. backrow was pretty similar. Faletau is unlucky to have missed out, but i think Lydiate is there incase plan A with croft doesnt work. Plus Lydiate is a great option to have come on and help close out a game (if we are in the lead).

  2. Would disagree that the Lions are aiming for parity in the scrum. I hope that they are aiming for total destruction of the Aussie front five, and dominance at worst.

    Am a bit worried about the breakdown!

    Sorry, but would also disagree with the statement that defence is a Northern Hemisphere thing. Didn’t the Aussies go quite a number of years allowing the least tries in international rugby and this despite regularly playing SA and NZ. I may be proved wrong on this but it’s one of those things that hangs around in the back of the mind and is normally only ever useful in a pub quiz. Neil Back drop goal anyone!

    1. defensively the aussies are strong. they dont have the bulk of some of the other nations, but organisationally they are up there as some of, if not the, best in the world.

      they are naturally gifted footballers from 1-15.

      the lions will want to aim for destruction in the scrum. Aussies view the scrum as a restart to the game, whereas other nations (mainly Northern, but SA and Argentina are similar) view it as a weapon for gaining penalties. this HAS to be an area that the lions target. having said that, they can’t get too hung up on it, because the refs will have a big say. if the ref does not accept their dominance, then they must have other plans of attack.

      the aussie scrum is not as weak as it used to be, but the lions are going to be strong. they just need to make sure that they have done their homework on the wallaby players and the ref. england’s biggest problem against Wales was an inability to adapt to the ref (wales did this very well) – this is a lesson that i hope rowntree learnt.

      1. Agreed there organisation is great, on the breakdown issue, many people would be surprised by Jamie Heaslips ability at the breakdown if needs be, he’s far more comfortable being the open field 8 but for Ireland under Kidney he is used far more in the tight and works well in the ruck area. Both 2nd rows are accomplished at the breakdown too which will also be crucial as the aussies also have Horwill who is one of if not the best 2nd row at the breakdown in world rugby. JD is huge im sure the 5kg between him and Roberts will not make any significant difference, I fancy the Lions to win by 9, hopefully JD and BOD link well together, if we get quick ball to Sexton then we’ll be flying.

        1. He did play a tighter game in the 6N, but didn’t seem to be too effective at it. I recall him being pretty anonymous in 3 arm wrestles in poor conditions. We then saw the real Jamie Heaslip towards the end of the season playing the looser roaming game, making breaks all over the pitch. If we needed someone for CQB then Faletau should have got the nod.

          1. I do think Faletau is better around the fringes, I just don’t think Heaslip is as bad as people make him out to be and I think he can do a job in there.

  3. The selection to me reeks of Gatland counting entirely on the tight 5 being dominant

    He’s picked 2 strong scrummaging locks plus he’s really gambling on Corbisiero and Jones taking apart the Aussie front row. And of course the bench front row is arguably as good.

    He’s picked Croft and Youngs to ensure parity or better at the line-out.

    I’m a little surprised about Heaslip over Faletau, and especially Lydiate on the bench, but fingers crossed on that.

  4. Will be interesting to see what type of role the back row are given are heaslip and croft going to be aloud to play in the wide channels and who is going to stay tight and do all the donkey work in the tackles and the breakdown. For me heaslip is prob slightly better than croft. Altough falatau would hav been far more effective. Alot of people forget about heaslips lineout work aswell he would be as good an option as croft. Maybe this explains his selection. This backrow just seems to lack an enforcer/hard man to realy make the big hits and let the wallibies no what real men are haha. Lets hope gat has got it right doe come on the lions

    1. dont think Heaslip is quite at Croft’s level in the lineout. he is good, but croft is a bit of a freak (both offensively and defensively). the only backrower in world rugby who provided similar lineout ability to Croft is probably Julien Bonnaire.

      I would expect AWJ, POC and T Youngs to pick up a lot more of the donkey work, allowing Heaslip and Croft to run a bit wider. These 3 will also take most of the passes off 9 to carry at forwards. Heaslip will likely pop up in the centres, and croft on the wing. i think that the sniping around the fringes from Phillips will also allow for Heaslip and Croft to run a bit wider too. add to that that phillips is probably the most willing 9 to hit rucks, means that he is probably the best 9 to help balance the backrow.

      I think AWJ and POC will relieve a huge amount of pressure from the backrow. both of them offer a huge workrate and great physiciality. with both being able to aptly fill the enforcer and athlete role, they provide a bit more than your average lock pairing. i would expect these two to be the ones smashing things, letting the aussies know what a real man is.

      POC’s work at the breakdown (defensively) will also free the backrow up to make tackles. i think it was very encouraging that some of the top tacklers in the Tahs game were POC, Warburton, T Youngs and AWJ.

      as Warbs is the only recognised “fetcher” in the team, i would expect the aussies to target him, so expect him to have a high tackle count. this will mean that guys like POC and T Youngs will have to try and fill in the fetching role. both do it quite well, as does Heaslip. Croft showed good skills in this area against the Tahs as well.

      Warburton will be key in terms of nullifying Hooper. I would hope he has had a similar briefing to what they used to give Joe Worsley. “That’s your man, you follow him round the pitch all day long. smash him when he gets anywhere near the ball”

  5. Presume POC will be doing the hard man role…

    Really don’t think its a battle between Hooper and Warburton. Warburton is probably better than Hooper over the ball but Hooper is incredibly quick and reads the play very well.

    As the Brumbies did, ir the Lions hit every breakdown hard and in numbers (not just committing a couple of players as they did), then Hooper will find life very difficult.

    The tight 5 have a massive role to play here

    1. agree, England’s aggression against the ABs meant McCaw couldnt do anything. the Lions have to do similar to Hooper.

      He isnt as strong over the ball as someone like Pocock or Smith, which is good for the lions. but they cant relax too much, because he will still get there, and he is still good at it.

      the area where he is really dangerous (more dangerous than the two mentioned above) is with ball in hand. he is absolutely rapid. Stuart Barnes mentioned that he is a beach sprinter (and then said he didnt know what it was). clearly, its someone who sprints on a beach… anyone who has tried this will know its very difficult, but builds leg power (and speed) to high levels. he will be a big threat, and someone that the backrow will have to watch. Croft’s pace could be a good factor in shutting Hooper down.

  6. Think there is a 6th area, the game breakers. Although with the likes of North, Philips, Sexton, etc we have our own I fear that between Folau, Leali’ifano, Ioane, O’Connor and Genia (plus Beale on the bench) the Wallabies are more likely to produce individual moments of game changing brilliance. We could score 25 points and still lose (without doing much wrong in defence) with that lot. Just hope they see precious little of the ball.

  7. If the Lions can win the breakdown battle everything else should fall into place, we’ve got enough weapons to win, but equally so do they, they may have more match winners in their backline but they’ve also got far less test match experience and are liable to make a few naive mistakes as we’ve seen the likes of Cooper and O’Connor do in the past. I’m quietly confident.

  8. The issue isn’t how much Davies weighs. The issue is that Davies doesn’t scatter defenders like skittles when he carries hard. Roberts and Tuilagi have that ability to suck in three defenders and still break two or three tackles to release an off load. Davies is more of a ball player than a man breaker.

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