Lewis Moody: Tinkering with winning Lions team is brave, but changes make sense
Moody Views: It's tough for the guys left out but that is the level of competition
Thursday 27 June 2013
The easy choice for a coach is to stick with a winning side – why alter a set-up that achieved the right result last time out? There were no Lions players whose performances in Brisbane last weekend were poor enough to make them obvious candidates for the chop yet Warren Gatland has been bold and sprung a surprise.
I certainly did not see five changes coming, and for someone like Tom Croft, who barely put a foot wrong in the first Test, it does seem a tough call. But I can understand why Gatland has made these alterations to his team as he chases that historic, series-clinching win here in Melbourne.
Mike Phillips has long been a Gatland favourite but Ben Youngs has been pushing all the way and has been outstanding on his last two appearances. He impressed in his time on the pitch in Brisbane and bounced around to great effect against the Rebels on Tuesday.
Youngs has proved himself and his selection brings a bit of versatility to the line-up. You do not want bish-bash-bosh merchants all across the pitch. You need people to break it up and mix up the plays. Australia's No 9 Will Genia, who was outstanding in the first Test, showed the impact of a player who can create something out of nothing and Youngs has a bit of that in his make up – look at his try on Tuesday and that turn of pace. He is also tenacious and, like Phillips, looks to get right in the face of his opponents.
It is tough for all the guys who have been left out, but that is the level of competition around on a Lions tour. Genia had a great game and was the best of the nines on the day yet Phillips did not have a bad match. The knee injury that he has been coping with for a while, and the limits that sometimes puts on his training, seems to have caught up with him as he is not even on the bench.
Croft is unfortunate, although we will almost certainly see him off the bench at some point. Gatland's selection of Dan Lydiate, a back-rower I have a great deal of time for, can be seen in part as making up for the absence of Paul O'Connell. The big Irishman was the team's enforcer and, with him out, Gatland needs someone who can take on that role. It is not what Geoff Parling – O'Connell's direct replacement in the second row – does, instead it is Lydiate who will bring that abrasiveness and direct physicality to the starting XV.
Parling may be a very different type of player to O'Connell but he was the obvious replacement. Some guys are just line-out gurus and Parling is one of those. He is the type of player who relentlessly analyses the game and his opponents and knows how to make the right call at the line-out. He doesn't have the power of an O'Connell or Richie Gray but he has an understanding of the line-out, where to win the ball and if you can't win the ball there is simply no starting point.
Tommy Bowe is a big selection. The Ulster wing was one of the outstanding performers of the first couple of games and then picked up what looked like a tour-ending hand injury. But the screws have gone in the hand and an awful lot of credit has to go to the medics, physios and not least the surgeon who operated on him for him being able to force his way back into the team. I am chuffed for him, especially as, like a number of the guys, he has some unfinished business from 2009. It will, though, demand a lot of him to step back into action in the intensity of a Lions Test when he hasn't played for a few weeks. How quickly will he slip back into form? Or will the hand injury play on his mind – he is wearing a hurling glove so it obviously needs some form of protection.
As with Croft, it is a tough call for Alex Cuthbert. He may not have had an outstanding tour but he did the necessary in Brisbane and took his try well. Instead the Wales wing takes his place on what looks a strong bench and one that Gatland will want to have a greater impact than in the first Test. It is good to see Sean O'Brien there. You cannot overstress the importance of the bench in Test rugby today and O'Brien will have an impact. He is an explosive ball carrier and can hit that last quarter hard.
Discipline will have been drilled into that squad all week. They were that one kick from defeat and must not give away so many penalties within range. It was not just the breakdown that was an issue for the Lions. The scrum was penalised, there was side entry. Brian O'Driscoll was harshly penalised twice when he was clearly on his feet. I actually thought referee Chris Pollock looked nervous and did not have his best game. From where I was sitting in the stands some of the decisions did not look good. Yes, the refereeing was at times dubious but you have to adapt. There is no other option but to play to how the referees down there see the game. It is part of the player's job. That will have been addressed this week.
Expect Wallabies to start with a bang
The Australian selection also surprised me. I thought James O'Connor would have been switched to the wing and Kurtley Beale brought in to 10. That would have moved Israel Folau to 15. He is so good under the high ball that 15 does seem the best position for his all-round abilities.
Still, I expect the Wallabies to come out strong in the first quarter, and they may even have enough to lead at half-time. They have quality attacking players across that back line and a tenacity to the side, as they showed in Brisbane. But I see the Lions having enough to claw it back in the second period, especially with the likes of O'Brien to bring off the bench. I go for the Lions by between seven and 10 points.
Youngs boys do family proud
When the teams run out I know where the loudest cheers will be coming from. The Youngs parents are down here – I bumped into them this week – and it is going to be such a proud moment for them. What a rugby family – Nick played for Leicester and England, and now his boys are going to start together for the Lions.
Seeing how proud they are is enough to make me feel emotional too. I know these boys, have watched them come through and develop as players at Leicester and know what good guys they are too. It is some achievement.
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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