That was fun wasn’t it? Nerve shredding to the end, the first Lions’ test certainly lived up to the billing it received both here and in Australia. Now the Lions head to Melbourne for their final midweek match of the tour. They will face the only Australian Super Rugby franchise left, the Melbourne Rebels. With injuries aplenty for the Lions now, this is a final chance for some of the fringe players to put a hand in the air to remind Warren Gatland that they deserve a run out in the final two tests. The last mid-week game ended in defeat at the hands of the ACT Brumbies, and you can almost guarantee that the lack of direction and organisation present that day will not be repeated.
Geoff Parling has been withdrawn from the team announced just two days ago, with Paul O’Connell breaking a bone in his arm. The captaincy duties have been handed to Dan Lydiate in Parling’s absence and expect a much improved performance from this side to the one we witnessed in Canberra.
This is a strong looking Lions team with many believing they will still have a good chance of making the Test squad, and some pushing for a starting spot. Rob Kearney is a class act at full back and one of the few to come out of the game against the Brumbies with credit. The midfield is beefy and sees the England first choice centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi reunited. Tuilagi must feel he has a genuine chance of getting into the match day squad on Saturday so expect a fiery opening from him in particular, before making way for Billy Twelvetrees in the second half.
All three men in the back-row will want to show Gatland as well that they are worthy of a start. This looks like the strongest area of the team for the tourists with Lydiate, O’Brien and Faletau all adding significant size and go-forward. Is Justin Tipuric though the man closest to the Test team, having been left on the bench here?
For some this will be as good as it gets on tour though, and potentially a last chance to wear the famous red shirt, so you’d think there will not be the lack of accuracy and enthusiasm that was on display in Canberra a week ago.
Key Players – Manu Tuilagi and Dan Lydiate
With familiar players inside him, Tuilagi will want to wreak havoc with his direct running. If he can do some real damage in Melbourne, expect him to be at least on the bench on Saturday. He will know there is a place for him there – it is now his time to prove he is worth it.
Lydiate offers the test team something completely different to his main rival Tom Croft, and if he can suitably disrupt the 8-9-10 channels in this match he will feel he has done all he can to really push the big Leicester flanker.
As with all the tour games thus far, the Rebels are without their Test stars who include Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Nick Phipps. They are also missing the excellent Scott Higginbotham to injury in the back row.
They are a better side than their position near the foot of the Super Rugby ladder perhaps would suggest though and if they get things right could present a serious challenge to the tourists.
This is as strong a Rebels side as could have been named however, and the axis at 8-9 where Gareth Delve and Luke Burgess (in his first game for the side since returning from France) will operate will be crucial. Both are highly experienced and have a strong knowledge of the Northern Hemisphere game, so will provide a good benchmark for those around to look to.
Key Player – Gareth Delve
Difficult to look past the big Welshman here. Expect captain Delve to give his absolute all against a team he must have once dreamt of playing for. He is an abrasive player, a big runner with ball in hand, and has a never say die attitude which is exactly what his team will need. Delve will relish the chance to go up against Toby Faletau who, in another life, he would have been competing with for a starting jersey for the tourists.
The Lions will have too much power in what is a very strong looking pack, and will be looking to at least match their performance in Sydney when they ended up defeating the ‘Tahs comfortably. Don’t expect another slip up in attitude from the tourists here. Lions by 20.
By Chris Francis (@mckrisp)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images