Pity the poor farmhands and sheep dip operatives of the South-east Australian bush, who were on a hiding to nothing from the British and Irish Lions even before Scott Gibbs, the undisputed king of the 1997 pride, received his call to arms from Graham Henry. Gibbs, chosen ahead of Gregor Townsend to replace the injured Mike Catt, was scheduled to arrive in Sydney later today and will make his tour debut against the unrated New South Wales Country XV in Coffs Harbour next Tuesday. If there is a God, he is not smiling on the good folk of Wollongong and Wagga Wagga.
Four years ago, Gibbs' phenomenal defence allowed the Lions to prevail over the Springboks on 25 per cent possession. Some of the Swansea centre's pace may have evaporated since his heroics in Cape Town and Durban, but his appetite for the rough and tumble is as sharp as ever. If it was a surprise when Henry omitted him from his original party, it was definitely not a shock when the Lions management confirmed his summons yesterday.
Catt, out of the tour with a calf injury, was in no doubt of Gibbs' potential value to the squad. "Is he the right man? There is nobody else," said the Bath midfielder. "Scott has all the experience in the world and is a proven big-game player. I just hope he can pull one out of the bag against the Wallabies." That last remark provoked a chorus of "amens" from the rest of the party. Tuesday's desperate performance against Australia A the first Lions defeat in a non-Test match in Australia for 30 years has left them in need of all the salvation going.
Gibbs is no Catt: a route-one merchant of the most direct kind, the Welshman does not possess his rival's kicking game, still less the ability to open up carefully constructed defences with a long ball off either hand. But then, Catt was not Catt in Gosford. The first time he slipped into overdrive, he knew it was curtains. "In a way, I'm relieved the decision has been made that my body has told me I'm simply not up to it at the moment," he admitted.
The Lions' Test line-up is likely to resemble the side selected for this weekend's awkward assignment against Bob Dwyer's New South Wales Waratahs. Certain positions are still under review: full-back, right-wing and the loose-forward combination spring immediately to mind. A fierce contest is developing at centre, too. Will Greenwood's selection at the expense of Rob Henderson left the up-beat Irishman feeling less bubbly than usual, but Henry's midfield strategy will collapse if Brian O'Driscoll fails to front up at the weekend. The Dubliner's try in Brisbane five days ago was unquestionably a tip-top effort, but he has shown precious little else thus far.
Nine days shy of the opening Test at Ballymore, only Iain Balshaw, Dan Luger, Jonny Wilkinson, Rob Howley, Keith Wood, Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock can afford to start thinking in terms of a Lions cap. Of these, Balshaw does not know whether he will feature at 15 or 14, Howley is nursing a rib injury and Luger is seeing stars after colliding with Neil Back during training. The Lions selectors had named the Harlequins wing for the Waratahs match, but immediately replaced him with Jason Robinson.
Were there any justice in the world, Richard Hill would also be a stone-cold Test certainty, but Henry's apparent fixation with Lawrence Dallaglio as a blind-side flanker rather than as a No 8 must threaten the form forward of the party. Certainly, Hill's absence from this latest line-up raised a forest of eyebrows. "We're looking at options," explained Henry, who, in an ideal world, would have seen more than his fill of options by this stage. "It is essential that we have a line-out option in the back row (Dallaglio is one of the world's best in that department) and having watched Richard play exceptionally well on this tour, I'm keen to see how this new combination works."
LIONS (v New South Wales, Sydney Football Stadium, Saturday): I Balshaw (Bath and England); D James (Bridgend and Wales), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), W Greenwood (Harlequins and England), J Robinson (Sale and England); J Wilkinson (Newcastle and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England); D Morris (Swansea and Wales), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Vickery (Gloucester and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), D Grewcock (Bath and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), N Back (Leicester and England), S Quinnell (Llanelli and Wales). Replacements: T Smith (Northampton and Scotland), R McBryde (Llanelli and Wales), M Corry (Leicester and England), R Hill (Saracens and England), A Healey (Leicester and England), R O'Gara (Munster and Ireland), B Cohen (Saracens and England).
New South Wales squad: C Blades, R Moore, P Noriega, B Cannon, G Mutton, J West, T Bowman, L Green, P Besseling, S Pinkerton. D Hickey, P Waugh, F Finau, S Payne, M Edmonds, S Harris, L Inman, R Tombs, S Staniforth, S Qua Qua, F Cullimore, D McRae, E Carter. Kick-off: 10.30am (BST)Reuse content