British and Irish Lions 2013: Warren Gatland’s big gamble to drop Brian O’Driscoll will haunt him if the numbers don’t add up

Tourists must improve attack as well as set-piece performance to clinch series

Sydney

The British and Irish Lions have been crunching the numbers all week in an effort to make this tour add up to something more than yet another lost opportunity, but if they finish on the wrong side of the scoreboard  arithmetic today, one number in particular – the unluckiest number of all, according to the superstitious – will surely come back to haunt them. No Brian O’Driscoll in the red 13 shirt? It seems a hell of a call, even now.

“That was Wednesday’s news. We’ve moved on.” So said the tourists’ scrum coach, Graham Rowntree, yesterday in a determined effort to put the story to bed. He would have been happier talking about different figures entirely: the ones revealing that the Wallabies have lost five of the last six matches staged at the huge Olympic Stadium on the edge of town; that the Lions have won nine of their Tests in this city while their hosts have prevailed on only four occasions; that the men from the British Isles have nailed three-quarters of the international games they have played on Australian territory since 1899.

He might even have pointed to his pack’s “officially ratified” 93 per cent success rate at the line-out in Melbourne last weekend had that particular calculation not flown directly in the face of reality and confirmed the old saying about lies, damned lies and statistics. The Lions are still vulnerable in this crucial area – quite why they feel they can do without the ultra-reliable athleticism of Tom Croft for the second Test running is a mystery that passeth all understanding – and if the possession they obtain today is as unusable as it was seven days ago, the precise make-up of the midfield will border on the irrelevant. They could field Darth Vader and Gandalf at 12 and 13 and still lose.

As the big Ulster wing Tommy Bowe acknowledged yesterday, the Lions have not played much in the way of effective attacking rugby in the series to date. “There were two individual tries scored in the Brisbane Test; in the Melbourne Test we didn’t really get any ball,” he said with refreshing candour, adding that together with his fellow wide man George North, he was hoping against hope that his constructive involvement would be far greater on this occasion.

That will depend, as it always depends, on events at the coalface, where the raw material of winning rugby, the treasure known as “primary possession”, is fought over and secured. The Lions have not admitted as much in public, but they were profoundly angered by the South African official Craig Joubert’s handling of the scrum in Melbourne, where the inexperienced England prop Mako Vunipola conceded three penalties, two of which were kicked by the super-accurate Wallaby marksman Christian Leali’ifano.

They have every right to expect today’s referee, Romain Poite of France, to be more to their liking – he is, after all, renowned throughout the union-playing world as a connoisseur of the dark arts of the set piece – and Alex Corbisiero’s return at loose-head prop means the front row will be better equipped technically than it was last time out. But if an improvement at the scrum is nullified by a wonky line-out, the Wallabies will happily settle for first-phase parity.

Bowe, anything but overworked on this tour after missing three weeks of rugby with a busted hand and looking a good deal fresher than most of his colleagues, argued that the Lions were every bit as fit as the Australians and that their sense of “desperation” – a much-used word among the tourists yesterday – would give them a competitive edge. But the Wallabies finished much the stronger in both previous Tests and have convinced themselves that if the decider is played at a high tempo, they will be the ones to benefit.

Will Genia, by common consent the outstanding individual player of the series thus far, rammed the point home yesterday when he made a somewhat unfavourable comparison between the Lions and the world champions of New Zealand.

“When you play the All Blacks, it’s really fast. Everything is speeded up, there are no stoppages, you can’t catch your breath,” the Wallaby half-back remarked. “The Lions enjoy the physical side of things. They like to play stop-start, get ascendancy at the set piece and take three points wherever they can.” Ouch.

And so we head into the abstractions, into the psychology of this momentous contest and the history underpinning it. The tourists have been wondering aloud whether the Australians can possibly revisit the emotional heights they scaled in Melbourne, where their late, series-saving victory reduced their influential captain, James Horwill, to tears. For all anyone knows right now, they may be proved right. But Genia made it clear in his eve-of-Test comments that the prospect of securing a once-in-a-lifetime victory over the Lions was just about as emotionally supercharged as it gets.

As for the lessons of the past, they are not especially reassuring from the visitors’ perspective.

Only twice in 120-odd years have the Lions claimed a series victory in the southern hemisphere by winning the final Test, and only once have they gone on to claim the spoils after letting slip an early advantage. That was in 1971, when Carwyn James’ party, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most revered red-shirted collective, beat New Zealand over four matches by edging the first, running away with the third and drawing the last. It would be stretching a point way past its natural elasticity to suggest that this current squad, for all its merits of commitment and togetherness, should be mentioned in the same breath.

If the Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones, not so much an unlikely captain at the start of the tour as an unimaginable one, leads the visitors to a 16-year high today, the O’Driscoll affair will be no more than a footnote in the annals. If the Lions lose, as the bookmakers now think they will, we can expect the affair to rumble on, deep into the new season and possibly beyond. But games of this magnitude are rarely, if ever, decided in the No 13 channel. The numbers that really count are to be found elsewhere.

Gatland’s ‘comfort zone’ players

Jamie Roberts

During his time in Wales, the Lions coach has come to trust a small number of individuals to deliver his trademark style of highly physical, unremittingly punishing rugby, known as “Warrenball”. The 6ft 4in centre is first among them with his size, power and gain-line expertise.

Mike Phillips

The belligerent scrum-half made his international debut five years before Roberts and can be seen as his prototype: bigger, stronger, more direct than most opposite numbers and a route-one specialist. When he runs with the ball, the phrase “cosh and carry” springs to mind.

Richard Hibbard

Awarded a first Test start at hooker because Tom Youngs of England has just about run himself into the ground, the 17st forward from Neath is another substantial specimen who likes nothing better than to rumble headlong into the heavy traffic. Again, he’s the biggest Lion in his position.

Toby Faletau

A couple of inches shorter but a few pounds heavier than his tour rival, the Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip, the Tonga-born forward plays a tighter, more abrasive style of rugby well suited to Gatland’s grand victory plan. Expect him to smash some Wallabies, with or without the ball.

 

Follow live updates of Australia v British and Irish Lions by clicking HERE.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine