There was one moment in Melbourne last weekend that exposed the difference in philosophy between the Lions and the Wallabies – one moment that went to the heart of the matter and may resonate at close of play in Sydney today.
It was the decision of the Australian captain, James Horwill, to scrum a penalty deep in the last 10 minutes rather than shoot for the sticks. Here was a captain prepared to go for broke rather than settle for something shared. Here was a bloke bold enough to make the big call.
It was not the only big call of the last few days – decisions don’t come much bigger than Warren Gatland’s selection of a midfield combination without Brian O’Driscoll’s name at the hub of it – but it was hugely significant. Six points down with as many minutes left, the Wallabies used that scrum to manufacture a match-winning try for Adam Ashley-Cooper and deny the Lions the series victory they were beginning to feel was theirs. Brave? I can’t recall anything more courageous in recent times.
The question is this: would the Lions have made that call had the boot been on the other foot? I doubt it. And now that O’Driscoll has joined Sam Warburton and Paul O’Connell on the sidelines, the doubt is even stronger. Alun Wyn Jones, a Lions captain for the day, may be faced with just such a conundrum. If he is, his nerves will be in shreds. Expect him to look to the touchline for advice, because he won’t be too confident about shouldering the responsibility alone.
The Lions want to “squeeze” the game at scrum and breakdown with some serious physicality, kick their penalties – they have Leigh Halfpenny’s boot in their armoury, after all – and scuttle off in to the night having edged it by a fraction.
The Wallabies are sufficiently sure of themselves to try something more adventurous and I take them to win by a single score. It will be tight, I’m convinced of that. The Australians are favourites, but when the occasion is this fraught, it’s often better to go in as the underdog. If the Lions can cramp the Wallabies’ style and force them into the kinds of back-line errors they were making for much of last week’s match, the gremlin in the Aussie brain will start making its presence felt.
Was Gatland right to do away with O’Driscoll? I can see a good deal of logic in it. The Lions want an attacking pattern based on Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts combining off clean ball from the back of the line-out. Once we establish that it is Roberts who has done for O’Driscoll and not Jonathan Davies – who has been the pick of the centres – it all fits. Besides, O’Driscoll has not been the same since being refereed out of the Brisbane Test by Chris Pollock.
The public’s view of leadership is old-fashioned. There’s a lot of talk about O’Driscoll the talisman and he’s been one hell of an inspiration to a lot of teams. But the idea of one man running the show in the way a cricket captain does is well off-beam. This is an 80-minute thing with the ground prepared in a dozen briefings and umpteen hours of analysis. A lot of the game will be played to a pattern. There could be the odd “Horwill moment”, but there won’t be many.
The line-out area is crucial to the Lions but the Wallabies will be confident of handling things there. Their concern is the scrum. I’ve spent some time with my fellow Australians this week and they think the Lions are illegal at the set piece.
They think the Lions are wheeling deliberately on the loose-head side in an effort to milk penalties from the referee, and I’ll be astonished if they haven’t been in to the Frenchman Romain Poite on the subject. Poite will have some big calls of his own to make today – calls that could easily decide the outcome.
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