Lewis Moody: Negative view of in-form Mako Vunipola must be hard for him to accept
Moody Views: Alex Corbisiero is a surprise... he hasn't even been out here two weeks
Thursday 20 June 2013
Brisbane is buzzing. Everywhere you look there are Lions fans and you cannot fail to sense the excitement building towards Saturday night (or the morning for you guys in the UK). It is obviously there among the thousands of supporters who have flown out but you can feel it around the team too.
I had a chat with Graham Rowntree and you could see that pre-game nervous energy coursing through him. As a former player there are times when you do really miss that surge of anticipation, and talking to Graham I can tell you I felt it strongly. The opening Test of a Lions series is such a great moment. This is what it's all about, all the preparation, all the games.
There is another feeling to confess to and that is pure pride at seeing Tom Youngs' name on that starting team sheet. I have watched him come through the ranks at Leicester and then make that momentous decision that his future lay not in the centres but at hooker. To most people it was one that smacked of lunacy but look where he is now.
You can't talk highly enough of his achievements over the last three years. He dropped down a division to Nottingham to learn his trade and really only came into first-team Premiership rugby at hooker this season. To go from there to playing a handful of England games to now be starting in your first Lions Test match is a huge achievement because the technicalities of the role of hooker are unmatched on the pitch, other than in the fly-half. The throwing, scrummaging – there is so much demand technically on the hooker. What he has been able to do in such a short period of time speaks volumes for his character and his application.
He has a big role to play. The lineout will be pivotal and it has wobbled a bit. They have not met the standards they will have demanded of each other and certainly not those demanded by Rowntree.
The Lions must get their set-piece right in the opening exchanges. The scrum as well needs to be strong and that is where Alex Corbisiero, the one surprise selection, comes in. It has become a feature of Lions tours that a guy gets called up and emerges to play a pivotal role, and the 2013 version could be provided by Corbisiero. The England prop hasn't even been out here for two weeks and now he is starting ahead of his compatriot Mako Vunipola because of a perceived extra ability in the scrum. It's tough on Vunipola, who has been playing well, but just shows how highly the Lions management rate the impact Corbisiero has made so quickly.
It will be those set-piece areas that are key to gaining a stronghold in the match. If the Lions can dominate the lineout and be solid in the scrum then the platform is there to unleash Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies and the dangerous Welsh back three. It will allow Jonathan Sexton the time to bring these guys into the game, to set George North running with short balls off his shoulder.
Getting North into the game is a must for the Lions and his return to fitness is a huge boost. He is so important to the way the Lions want to play the game. He goes looking for work, he carries the ball around the rucks, gets stuck in both in defence and attack. I love his work ethic.
It is unfortunate that Tommy Bowe is injured as I think he would have been a first choice on the other wing. Injury will always impact on a Lions tour – Jamie Roberts too is a big miss – but strangely it is the success of guys coming back from serious injury that stands out in this first Test side. Corbisiero has done it, as have Dan Lydiate, Tom Croft, Paul O'Connell and O'Driscoll, and it is credit to them. It is difficult to regain fitness and then regain that form once you get out on the pitch. It needs mental steel and it is testament to their character. The tenacity to succeed particularly from O'Driscoll and O'Connell should be an inspiration to all young players.
The performance against the Waratahs will be what the Lions are looking for in Brisbane. I don't expect any great surprises from the team Gatland has selected in terms of their style of play – he will want more of what we saw in Sydney last weekend. Some of the passing and distribution was outstanding across the board. The Lions do not want it to just be the bish, bash, bosh, although they do need guys like Davies – playing the Roberts role – to get over the gainline, and they need forwards like O'Connell and Youngs to do that as well. Roberts will be missed but the Welsh back three still have plenty of physical presence and Leigh Halfpenny is having one of the best seasons I have ever witnessed from a full-back. Long may that continue. Get that set-piece right and they have the men behind to damage the Aussies.
The home side will find confidence in their recent record against the northern hemisphere. They won in Cardiff and at Twickenham in the autumn and have that run of success against the Welsh in their back pocket. But then Wales could have won any of those games last summer and England came close, too. There is some real unfinished business for the Welsh here.
There is no doubt in my mind that it will be incredibly close. The Wallabies are a far better team than many people give them credit for. Robbie Deans is coming under an awful lot of fire – two Aussie fans told me they want the Lions to win so it would mean the end of Deans – and the first victory is so important for both coaches. Not since Finlay Calder's side back in 1989 have the Lions lost the opener and won the series. I see a 2-1 series win for the Lions – if they win this first game. Lose and it will be an incredibly tough uphill struggle. They have the firepower and the capability to win on Saturday but it will be so, so tight. So here goes, I will stick my neck on the line and pick the Lions by three points.
I'm putting my bum on the line for the veterans
If my Achilles (and backside) allow it, I have a game of my own before the Test. A Lions Classic XV takes on our Anzac counterparts in aid of Help for Heroes and their antipodean equivalents. Craig Chalmers, Ben Clarke and Rob Henderson are lining up in red and Justin Marshall is on the Anzac side. Having cycled from John O'Groats to Land's End last week and damaged my Achilles (ditto my backside), I'm not sure I'll last five minutes but once you cross that white line, especially with all the Lions buzz, the competitive instincts come flooding back.
ESPN Classic continues its Lions and international Rugby Union coverage every weeknight at 9pm. Airing tonight is the 2003 Rugby World Cup final when England faced Australia. Visit espnclassic.com for details.
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