The British and Irish Lions: Warren Gatland ensures squad unity while choosing a side that can rattle the Queensland Reds
Canny coach names side that ensures all fit tourists will have had a run out by Saturday night
And then there was one – Rob Kearney, the Ireland full-back, who would not be the single exception to the Lions hierarchy's golden rule had he not picked up a hamstring injury during training. Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches always insisted they would present every man standing with a proper showcase for his talents in the first tranche of tour matches, and by keeping their side of the bargain, they have minimised the risk of internal disaffection. In terms of squad unity, it has been a masterstroke.
At least, it will look like a masterstroke if the tourists walk away from the first of their two games in this city with their unbeaten record intact. And who is to say it will not happen? Saturday's opponents, the Queensland Reds, are as formidable a Super 15 outfit as Australia has to offer: they may be without such glistening talents as the wing Digby Ioane, the scrum-half Will Genia and the World Cup captain James Horwill, but they can still field nine capped Wallabies, including the captivating midfield conjuror Quade Cooper. Yet through pure selectorial cunning, Gatland has contrived to indulge his necessary interest in experimentation without throwing caution to the gentle winds blowing in off the Pacific Ocean.
The choice in the front row of the scrum is a case in point. Matt Stevens, an unusually substantial specimen even by the scale-busting standards of the propping fraternity, has yet to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he is back up to speed with rugby at this exalted level after a year away from the international game. But on Saturday, he will have alongside him the liveliest of the three hookers in this party, Tom Youngs of England, and the three-tour Lion, loose head Gethin Jenkins of Wales, happily recovered from calf muscle hassles and relishing the prospect of a full and frank close-quarter hit-out with an all-Wallaby combination. Taken in the round – and humankind does not come rounder than Stevens – it is a clever piece of mixing and matching.
Something similar can be said of the back-five choice. The engine room pairing of Richie Gray, the Scottish all-court lock, and Geoff Parling, the English line-out expert, does not on the face of it have the authority of previous combinations featuring Paul O'Connell of Ireland or Alun Wyn Jones of Wales (although it has to be said that the latter did not exactly blow the house down in Perth on Wednesday, for all his huffing and puffing). However, the presence of the first-choice Welsh loose unit gives the pack a lean and hungry look. This time next week, Gatland must reach a number of serious decisions about the shape of his line-up for the first Test, and it may well be that two-thirds of that side – maybe 75 per cent of it – is already nailed down. But as the coach said, there are possibilities that still intrigue him.
Alex Cuthbert and Tommy Bowe, paired together on the wing here, are probably chasing a single place against the Wallabies, the outstanding George North being a hot favourite to make the cut following his powerful contribution against Western Force. But there is nothing the think tank would like more than to have their thoughts turned upside down by a flurry of ruthless finishing on either flank.
There is also a good deal of interest in the latest centre selection, even though the Jamie Roberts-Brian O'Driscoll partnership that blossomed so beautifully in South Africa four years ago is expected to continue when the tourists return here for the first meeting with the Wallabies. Manu Tuilagi was played out of position in the No 12 role against Western Force, and even though the human bowling ball slipped the odd high-class pass out of the tackle, a return to the more familiar No 13 channel against a dangerous Reds midfield gives him a better opportunity to show himself as something more than bench material. Meanwhile, the excellent Jonathan Davies moves in the opposite direction. He could turn out to be the Will Greenwood circa 1997 of this tour: the best player not to win a Test cap.
Of course, the Reds see it as their business to take Gatland's carefully calibrated research and smash him in the face with it, thereby striking a blow in defence of Australian rugby's honour. "Our approach was always going to be to field as strong a line-up as possible," said Ewen McKenzie, the Queensland coach who is favoured to succeed Robbie Deans in the Wallaby job sooner rather than later. "History suggests this is a mammoth task, but we'll go out there with plenty of good intentions and with a commitment to giving a strong account of ourselves."
Cooper will attract an overwhelming proportion of the available attention: this game is being seen in Brisbane, the most passionate union town in the country, as his final audition for a Wallaby recall after various fallings-out with the management. He was certainly on the mind of the Lions captain Sam Warburton, whose job it will be to close down the trickster's space and force him to do predictable things rather than the opposite.
"Quade is an outstanding player with great footwork and he'll pose a different threat at No 10 to anything we've faced so far," said the flanker. "That will be good for us. We don't want our defence to be undercooked when we get to the Tests."
Yet the Lions would be criminally daft to ignore the threats from elsewhere. The wings Rod Davies and Luke Morahan have Test know-how, as do the centres Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa, while there is international experience across the front row. Most of McKenzie's men have been Super 15 regulars this term. More to the point, the Reds consider themselves to be winners.
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