Warren Gatland can be counted among the most successful coaches in the world game – there is no denying the bloke’s record – but there is not much mystery to the way his teams play. It’s a form of rugby I call “Warrenball” and if the evidence of the opening two matches on this Lions tour is anything to go by, we’ll be seeing plenty of it over the next month. I’m certainly not expecting to be catapulted from my seat in shock at the tricks the tourists pull against the Wallabies.
We saw this straightforward but highly effective strategy when Warren was winning trophies at Wasps and we’ve seen it in his time with Wales, who have nailed three titles and two Grand Slams during his spell in charge. It involves very big, extremely powerful players taking the ball round the edges and equally big, powerful wings making dents infield at a high tempo set from half-back. There may be one or two unexpected tactical flourishes from the Lions when they enter the opposition red zone but basically, this is about belligerence. They’ll be looking to outmuscle every Australian side they meet... including Australia.
The statistics tell us Warren hasn’t had much joy against the Wallabies just lately, but he won’t be worrying about that. He’ll just crack on in the knowledge that the Wallabies have been hit by injuries and are looking a little vulnerable. Players like Digby Ioane, David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham and one or two others would have been in the Aussie starting line-up had they been fit, and they’ll be missed. I can’t remember them being this light on personnel in their recent victories over Wales.
Australians exist in a southern hemisphere rugby ecosystem, alongside the New Zealanders and South Africans, and all things being equal, they are not fazed by muscle. You don’t see too many soft All Blacks or weak Springboks. There are plenty of similarities between the way the Boks play and the kind of stuff I’m expecting from the Lions. Back in the day, great Wallaby players like George Gregan and Stephen Larkham always backed themselves to be smarter than the opposition.
Will these Wallabies have that edge with a third of their team on the sidelines? That’s the question. Certainly, they’ll need to field a No 10 with a footballing range equivalent to that of the Lions outside-half Jonathan Sexton. This is the central fascination of today’s game in Queensland. We know Quade Cooper can shred opponents with his box of tricks, but we also know that Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, doesn’t really trust him. Will Cooper play his way on to the main stage? I’ll be watching, for sure.
Self-belief shouldn’t be a problem for the Wallabies – we Aussies are a cocky lot – and the fact that the Lions are likely to go into the first Test in Brisbane a fortnight today as raging hot favourites may be a bigger problem for them than for the Wallabies. Aussies like nothing better than playing against people who think they’re better than them. You can talk about a chip on the shoulder, put it down to the “convict race” syndrome... you can call it whatever you like, but it’s definitely there and it generally works to their advantage. On balance, I think the home side can pinch one of the first two Tests and take the whole thing down to the last 80 minutes in Sydney.
Am I expecting any surprises in the Lions line-up? Mako Vunipola, the new England prop, is making an impression and while I think Gatland will opt for loose-head experience in his starting line-up, Vunipola may be the guy to come off the bench and change the world. Also, I can see Brian O’Driscoll being on the field for the start of the Test series. This may not sound like much of a shock, but I thought initially that Gatland might simply pick the biggest back line in history by pairing Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi at centre. I’ve shifted on this one. The sight of massive, muscular wings steaming into midfield leads me to suspect that the Irish grand master will get his wish on his last Lions tour.
I must also say that I’m pretty tired of hearing everyone have a go at Michael Foley, the Western Force coach who fielded a “half and half” side against the Lions in Perth on Wednesday. The way I look at it, Blind Freddie could have told you he wouldn’t pick his strongest team. The Force are down towards the bottom of the Super 15 log, the win-loss ratio is staring at Michael from the office wall and he has a game this weekend against the Waratahs, the side he left at the end of last season after a really difficult year. Put all that together, and it was obvious he would go conservative in selection.
People are talking about “disrespect” to the tourists, but there are plenty of others we can look at in this regard. Why unload everything on Michael at a time when everyone wants their pound of flesh out of the Lions, including the Lions? What was Hong Kong about if it wasn’t about people cashing in? OK, the Force game was a disappointing event: even I almost switched over at half-time. But it’s over now. Today’s game in Queensland is a different thing entirely. The tour starts here.