A dramatic opening Test match that went down to the final kick; the James Horwill citing and its aftermath; the flurry of controversy over the night-owl antics of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor; the Lions’ mind games in selection… yes, it’s been another quiet week in rugby land. Anything could happen next, and probably will.
What do we make of it all? Let’s start with the Lions team for today’s Test, which shows five changes to a winning side. Two of those changes are injury-driven – there isn’t a coach in the world who can do much about that – but Warren Gatland’s decision to change things voluntarily in three further, very different positions is another matter.
The dropping of Mike Phillips for Ben Youngs at scrum-half has generated a lot of discussion, but it seems to me quite a simple thing. We can start from the premise that Phillips is injured, and that as Warren doesn’t want the opposition to think his team is wounded by it, he’s bigging up Youngs as the form pick. This is what I mean by mind games. What is it about ex-hookers –Warren, Eddie Jones, Richard Cockerill and so on – that drives them down this route? Either they’re smarter than the rest of us or they really believe this stuff.
Yet having said that, Warren may have stumbled on something here. Phillips definitely had a poor night in Game One, so there is clear value in the Lions sending a message to the opposition that they intend to be a whole lot better in this crucial position. Youngs is a good player in decent form – one who has had his share of good moments against the Wallabies. I think it may work for the tourists on this occasion, although I’d still like to have been a fly on the wall when the real Gatland-Phillips conversation took place.
Where the Lions look vulnerable is at the line-out. Geoff Parling will be calling it, which is fine: he does the job for Leicester and England and he has a good understanding with his hooker, Tom Youngs, with whom he plays for club and country. But one of the most important figures in the ball-winning department, Tom Croft, is not going to be around, having been replaced on the blind-side flank by Dan Lydiate. As a result, it could be a much harder day at the office for Youngs and a baptism of fire for Parling. I don’t think Geoff will choke: he seems too strong psychologically for that. But this will be the most severe test of his career, for sure. The Wallabies will go after the Parling-Youngs combination because they know they’re missing an operator of genuine world class.
I’m sure Lydiate has been drafted in, at least in part, to do a job on the Wallaby half-back Will Genia, who was every bit as outstanding in Brisbane as everyone said he was. Is it the right move? As I’ve indicated, the Lions will miss the things Croft brings to a team. But it’s always interesting listening to what top-class players make of other top-class players, and from what I’ve heard the senior guys out there have only good things to say about Lydiate. They regard him as a tackling machine and consider him to be as tough as they come. They’re full of admiration for him and that tells you pretty much all you need to know.
Along with most other people, I thought the Wallabies were as brave as hell last week: when you lose as many players as they did, in the positions they did, it’s incredibly hard to function, let alone get to within a kick of victory. But bravery should be a given at this level and if I’m honest, I thought the referee piggy-backed them at important moments. There were three or four occasions when little things went their way – when they got some calls they weren’t entitled to. Would they have cracked if those decisions had gone to the Lions instead? It’s hard to say this as an Australian, but they might well have done. I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that they deserved to win the game, even though they put themselves in a position to do so.
As for the Beale-O’Connor affair, I see it as something of a sideshow, although I also take the view that it’s not ideal to go to bed a minute after midnight in Test week, let alone four hours after midnight. I guess these blokes are products of their generation, and while they have some previous form, they’re also supremely talented. All I’d say is that I was delighted and relieved to read they weren’t drinking at 4am, because with Kurtley’s recent experiences on the alcohol front and the incredibly fraught situation he found himself in in Brisbane… well, that could have left him in a really difficult place.
From the Australian perspective, I have more serious concerns over Adam Ashley-Cooper in the context of today’s game. He’s a top centre, but he’s clearly going to need an injection if he’s to play with that banged-up shoulder of his. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t even have been considered for selection, but this is a once-in-a-career shot at the Lions so he’s going to play hurt. I also have concerns at 10. O’Connor’s decision-making as first receiver in Brisbane was pretty rusty and if I’d been Robbie Deans I’d have switched things around to run Beale at outside-half and O’Connor at full-back, simply because Beale is better on the ball. To me, it smacks of a coach refusing to back down.
A prediction? Thinking with my head rather than following my heart, I give it to the Lions by 10 points. The Wallabies can win, for sure, but with all that’s been happening, I believe the momentum is with the tourists.
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