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.
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.
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)