British and Irish Lions 2013: George North and Israel Folau set for Test scrap to be Lions wing commander
Lions coach Warren Gatland says widemen's crunching match-up will be 'worth the entrance fee alone'
Warren Gatland and the Wallaby nation may not agree on many things at the moment, but both the Lions head coach and the whole of Australia are relishing the prospect of George North and Israel Folau tearing into each other in the Suncorp Stadium hothouse on Saturday. "It'll be worth the entrance money on its own," Gatland said – and when Folau made his first public appearance for some weeks, you could see his point.
Folau looks every inch the high-calibre professional sportsman, even when he's fielding questions from the floor rather than picking rugby balls out of the floodlit stratosphere. Marginally taller at 6ft 5in than the unusually substantial Welsh wing who will oppose him in the first Test of the series, he poses an obvious aerial threat to the Lions – not least because he prefaced this promotion to Wallaby status by winning international honours in rugby league (he won his first cap as an 18-year-old, the youngest Australian to do so) and then playing professionally in the indigenous Aussie rules form of football. In both those sports, parting company with terra firma for unnatural periods of time is a must-have skill.
North is not made of quite the same stuff: two stones heavier, he is hardly a natural levitator. But the Lions, profoundly relieved to have him among their number after a week of anxiety over the state of his strained hamstring, believe he can cause a similar degree of mayhem at ground level. According to Gatland, it will be among the most compelling individual contests of the series.
"He's an extraordinary talent, this Folau, but he's not played a lot on the wing," the Lions coach said after confirming North's selection, only a few days after taking a doom-and-gloom view on the youngster's chances of recovering in time for this momentous occasion.
"No doubt [Folau will] receive some attention from us as we look to find out how strong he is defensively. Wing is just about the most difficult position on the field when it comes to defending. He's an incredible footballer – he's naturally gifted, he can ride a tackle, he's a real threat in the air and he has a rugby league player's off-loading skills. But he's new to this role. His match up with North should be something to see."
For Gatland's opposite number and fellow New Zealander, the Wallaby head coach Robbie Deans, the decision to give Folau a Test debut in a match of this magnitude was a no-brainer. "I don't really see it as a debut for him," Deans said. "He's played international sport before." And the man himself? "I'll have to be switched on, but I'm comfortable playing where I'm playing," Folau said with an air of serenity that seemed almost unnatural for a union newcomer facing so rigorous an examination. "I've spent plenty of time training in the position. It doesn't worry me."
There will be eye-catching personal conflicts all over the field, starting up front among the members of the rival packs. Charged with putting all the right people in all the places, Gatland acknowledged that one or two selection issues really grieved him. For instance, he could not have imagined omitting Dan Lydiate of Wales, his favourite blind-side flanker, from the starting line-up, yet Tom Croft's performance against the New South Wales Waratahs six days ago left him with no option.
And while he originally saw the fast-developing England prop Mako Vunipola as an "impact" player on the bench, which is pretty much where the red-rose coaching staff think he belongs right now, he was sorely tempted to include him from the start as reward for a series of excellent contributions over the last three weeks. Vunipola's failure to hold off the more experienced, more technically advanced and tactically astute Alex Corbisiero was one of the few mild surprises sprung by the Lions hierarchy.
"Mako is pretty unlucky," Gatland said, "but technically Alex is pretty good and perhaps there is a bit more of a combination there with Tom and Adam. Mako will make a big impact for us coming off the bench."
Corbisiero's is one of the stories of the season, and if he succeeds in giving the Wallaby tight-head Ben Alexander a hurry-up at the scrums and ends up on the winning side, he will look back on his 2012-13 campaign with complete bemusement. "There were some dark times when I was struggling with my knee injury, wondering if there was any light at the end of the table," said the man who spent virtually the whole of the season in a bitterly frustrating state of incapacitation. "Fortunately, I had my degree in history to take up some time. My subjects were the Greco-Roman world and late medieval London."
As the blistering half-time rollocking dished out by the Lions coaches at half-time in Canberra on Tuesday night was colourfully described by the forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, as "f***ing medieval", Corbisiero must have understood it better than anyone. "I knew what they were talking about, but it wasn't quite what I'd been studying," he said with a smile.
Vunipola took his demotion to the bench as well as could be expected, saying Rowntree had told him that while Corbisiero's superior scrummaging had swung the decision, his own efforts to date had been virtually fault-free. "It was hard to hear I'd be on the bench, but just to be involved in the 23 is an honour and a privilege," the Saracens prop said. "When the squad was announced I congratulated Alex and told him to go well. He said the same to me. He's a great scrummager. I just have to keep learning from him."
Some will wonder why, in light of the scrum-influenced call at loose head, Gatland did not go the whole hog and pick the Welsh hooker Richard Hibbard as a means of maximising the power game at close quarters. Hibbard is over a stone heavier than Tom Youngs, the England forward who will start.
But all things considered, the Lions coaches have not missed many tricks. Stripped through injury of three of their back-line "Panzers" – Tommy Bowe, Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi – they have largely come up with the combination that cried out to be picked.
The Wallabies? They've done the same. That's the fun of it.
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