I guess it’s head or heart time. Speaking as a proud Australian – and you have to remember that if there’s a driving force behind our national pride, it’s the prospect of sticking one up the Poms – I have to say that as the first Test with the Lions finally arrives, I’m fancying my countrymen a fair bit more than I was a couple of weeks ago. Until very recently, I thought the tourists would catch the Wallabies on the hop. Now I’m not so sure.
Maybe it’s the patriotic spirit coming to the fore, maybe not. I’d like to think I’m a little more analytical than that. The thing that really strikes me now that the teams for Brisbane have been announced is that Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, has moved away from the approach most people thought he was planning to take by including the Brumbies midfielder Christian Leali’ifano at inside centre, a player who will put some width on the game and, in my view, make Australia significantly more dangerous.
To my way of thinking, this is clearly down to the fact that the Lions have lost Jamie Roberts, their most punishingly powerful midfield runner. Had he not picked up that hamstring injury, I’m pretty sure Deans would have played the security card by picking someone like Pat McCabe as a pure shot-stopper. Now, it’s a different story entirely.
They’ll still have a good deal of go-forward from Adam Ashley-Cooper in the outside channel, but they’ll also have options in the playmaking department. This is just as well, from their point of view. James O’Connor, the outside-half, has not played a hell of a lot of rugby in that crucial position and with the Lions’ defensive line speed as good as it is, he might struggle to cope. Having other decision-makers available will ease the burden.
But to me, the biggest call of all is the selection of Berrick Barnes at full-back. He’s smart. He’s also Deans’ favourite go-to guy. Let’s take the smart bit first. When the Lions make their exits from their 22 and set their kick-chase in motion, they leave only one sweeper at the back, generally Leigh Halfpenny. Barnes has a terrific range of chips off either boot and I wouldn’t be surprised if he countered with a variety of cross-kicks, Aussie Rules-style, to force the Lions chasers into turning round and chasing their tails. He did it against England last November, with great success.
Equally importantly from Deans’ perspective is the man’s deeply professional attitude. You might say the coach has gone for character over sheer talent – it’s the reason Quade Cooper isn’t involved, I suppose – but I can see his reasoning. Berrick is a country boy from the Darling Downs and he’s bloody good in a tight spot. This is a defining moment in Deans’ coaching career and he wants to surround himself with people who will do a job for him in the difficult moments. If he could go to war with anyone, he’d choose Barnes. Especially as he’s a very handy drop-goal merchant in tight situations.
Talking of kickers… Jeez, I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone hit a ball as straight and true as Halfpenny is hitting it at the moment. I spent a fair bit of time with Jonny Wilkinson during my days coaching England and he was a master, but even at his best, I don’t remember him being on a streak this hot. Does this mean I think Halfpenny is Wilkinson’s equal? Not yet. You need to judge that kind of thing over the stretch. On the evidence of this tour, though, you have to put him right up there.
This is one of the key differences between the two sides. Halfpenny could win the series for the Lions; Australia will have to do more than kick their goals to take the glory. Realistically, who among the Wallaby kickers – and there are a few in today’s line-up – is going to match Halfpenny’s strike rate, or even go close, assuming the Lions scrum long on their own ball in the search for penalty decisions? The interesting thing is that if the Wallabies don’t win on their favourite paddock today, Deans will really have to open up his team’s game, which will put them in high-risk, high-reward territory. An exciting thought.
Another exhilarating prospect is the presence of Israel Folau in the Australian back division. He could be world-class, and almost certainly will be: when he was playing rugby league for the Kangaroos alongside Greg Inglis, it was like watching Avatar on a very big screen. It’s not easy for a league player to step straight into Test-class union and make it look easy, especially if he’s had a spell of Aussie Rules in between codes, but I think Folau will offer something exceptional pretty quickly. The best is yet to come, and it’s probably coming soon.
So who wins today? You must know by now what my Queenslander’s heart is telling me. But while the Wallabies will be fresh after spending quality time in camp, they have three rookies in their line-up and are coming up against a Lions side hardened by half a dozen games, three of them pretty tough.
The tourists may just have the edge, but I don’t see them doing what many people think they’ll do and completely dominate the set-piece exchanges. I expect the Wallabies to find a way of coping there and if they manage it, the outcome will be on a razor’s edge.Reuse content