I am backing the Lions to win the First Test next Saturday, and as I get ready to fly Down Under and lead a group of supporters in Brisbane, the nerves and excitement are building superbly.
It will be a different role for me, and I can only envy the Lions this week but also I feel plenty of empathy. Having toured as a player in 1997, 2005 and 2009 I know how the atmosphere changes in the last days before the opening Test. There’s a lot of tension around, waiting for the selection. Some players will know it’s too late for them already but they must keep showing total commitment.
In ’09 I was absolutely gutted to be left out of the First Test when I was convinced I’d have a bench spot at least. But I would tell anyone in the same position this week to keep working. Warren Gatland will be looking for the guys whose heads are down, and the ones who keep striving. In ’09, having put my all into preparing to be a bench player, I found myself starting the Second and Third Tests. You have to be ready when the chance comes. I’ve never faced Australia as a Lion but I did it a few times with England and you are guaranteed two things above all else: 100 per cent commitment – they never give up, and the proof is in their last-minute miracle comebacks – and they have class footballers, whatever team they put out. Ball in hand or ball to foot, the Wallabies have an instinctive ability to know where to attack and what to do in the right moments. From Tim Horan and Jason Little a generation ago, to Matt Giteau, to the Kurtley Beales and James O’Connors now, they seem to have it all.
Believe me, it’s particularly disconcerting if you’re a forward stuck in a back line with the likes of Beale coming at you, picking his pass, his dummy, his sidestep. It happened to me often enough, finding myself screaming for support! That footballing ability extends to the Wallabies’ forwards. What they offer around the pitch, and also their offloading, is up with the best. The set-piece, though, is different. It is unpredictable. Aussie packs often lack size and technical ability. I’ve played in games – Perth in 2010 with England springs to mind – when we’ve literally had them running backwards. But I’ve also played when they’ve put it together.
A lot of scrummaging is in the head, you know. You can be beaten before you go out on the pitch. Much as it would suit the Lions, I very much doubt these Aussies will go out believing they will be dominated. Front-rowers like Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore and Benn Robinson are no mugs. And I like the captain, James Horwill, in the second row. He has a cool head and his running ability, line-outs and other basics are good. So what do the Lions need to do to win? Mike Phillips has got to outplay Will Genia at scrum-half and a great deal of that will depend on who wins the forwards’ fight.
If one team goes flying back at the first scrum it is a huge psychological blow – but that is very rare. I prefer to watch what happens 20 or 25 minutes later, when you get a truer impression of who’s on top. I think Australia will try and keep the pace of the game up, and run the Lions pack around to wear them out.
Get the ball in and away as soon as possible, not hang around trying to squeeze penalties – whereas the Lions may well do that, keeping the scrum ball at the No 8’s feet hoping for a penalty. They call it “scrummaging long” in Australia. The trouble is, the referee may not play ball, and the Lions’ leaders need to be alive to that. It’s no good moaning about the officials after the event.
I am expecting the Lions to mix up their tactics more than they have done so far – to use a line-out drive, and work the scrum-half off mauls and scrums. The back row is still an area of debate.
I’m certain Gatland will have had a word in Tom Croft’s ear yesterday – something like “this is it, you’ve got this game to prove yourself” – and he did play well, but there are good options in Sean O’Brien as a ball-carrying No 6 or Dan Lydiate. When the coach said Sam Warburton is not guaranteed a start, that was all part of the coach’s mind games. There’s always truth in what “Gats” says. It also dangles a carrot for the big game. I am sure Warburton will be in now. He and all the Lions must know this is the week the tour gets serious.
Simon Shaw is riding with a group of rugby players from London to Paris to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust and Restart Rugby. It starts on 18 July. Joining him will be Nick Easter, Serge Betsen, Tim Payne, Kenny Logan and others. To take part, contact Ian@setpieceevents.co.uk. To sponsor, visit www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/TeamKarma or donate £5 by texting KARM49 to 70070.