Dave Gantly talks about the upcoming First Test between Australia and the British and Irish Lions.
With questions being raised about the strength of the Lions pre test fixtures, it is difficult to know exactly where they stand coming in to the first test against Australia this Saturday. Out of six warm up games, only two (Queensland Reds and The Brumbies) teams really tested the Lions players to the limit. Yesterday’s loss to the ACT Brumbies was the Lions first loss on tour and is not ideal with the three test series fast approaching. Arguments can be made that it was a team thrown together at the last-minute but a lot more was expected of the Lions, especially by Head Coach Warren Gatland’s omission that test places were still up for grabs.
The unbeaten record on tour is now gone and that will hurt the Lions players and management. Heads will be low after such a disappointing performance and the coaches will have to work tirelessly to refocus the players for the beginning of the test series this weekend. Yes, you could argue that a lot of the players playing against the Brumbies may not feature against the Wallabies but it is about the confidence in the camp as a whole. Out of the starting fifteen that lost to the Brumbies, only Welsh no 8 Toby Faletau put his hand up for test selection, in what has been a fierce battle between himself and Ireland Captain Jamie Heaslip for the no 8 spot. It is widely anticipated that Faletau will start in Brisbane this Saturday. While it may be harsh on Heaslip after his performances so far on this tour, Faletau is the right call and Heaslip will provide invaluable experience and quality off the bench. Read what you may in to Faletau starting against the Brumbies while Heaslip was rested, I would be very surprised if Faletau is not handed the no 8 jersey.
The returning Rob Kearney had a solid return after a lengthy period out with a hamstring injury and should be in consideration for a place amongst the replacements this weekend as cover for Leigh Halfpenny at full back. Halfpenny has been the outstanding performer on this tour so far and his excellent goal kicking ratio may be the difference between the test series won or lost. Rightly labeled as one of the best (if not the best) fullbacks in world rugby, he is crucial to the Lions cause.
Other players who carried on with their good form and are now very much in consideration for the first test include Munster’s Conor Murray who came off the bench yesterday and suddenly the Lions looked more threatening with quick ball and leadership being provided by the young scrumhalf. Ben Youngs had a day to forget with his inexperienced fly half Stuart Hogg not helping matters. Youngs delivery was too slow which left the backline with little space to work with. This cannot be the case this Saturday. Conor Murray is a very similar player to Wales’s scrumhalf Mike Phillips but this should not stop the coaches selecting Murray on the bench. He has been very impressive on the tour thus far and if it wasn’t for the brilliant and experienced Mike Phillips in his way, he could be looking at a starting test spot.
Another player who has come very much in to the reckoning is winger Simon Zebo. His performance against the Waratahs was very impressive and he was very unlucky not to score in the opening seconds. Given space, he can break any line and his huge left boot and composure under the high ball will have been noted by the Lions coaches. He looked lively when summoned from the bench yesterday and is surely ahead of Sean Maitland in terms of test selection.
Australia will be quietly confident going in to this weekend’s opening fixture following the Lions loss to an under strength Brumbies side. They do however have injury concerns of their own with leaders George Smith and David Pocock ruled out through injury. Pocock in particular is a massive loss for the Aussies with his work at the breakdown second to none. They do have other weapons in their armoury with the exciting Kurtley Beale expected to start at fly half alongside world-class scrumhalf Will Genia. This should prove to be a fascinating duel in the halfbacks, with Sexton and Phillips expected to line up against them.
Quade Cooper can count himself very unlucky not to be involved after his performance for the Queensland Reds against the Lions last week but it seems Australia head Coach Robbie Deans is not ready to clear the air just yet after their recent troubles.
Wallabies winger Digby Iaone looks set to start on the wing after declaring himself fit this week, which is a major boost for Australia. The Wallabies flyer has been out of action for a month with a knee injury but is expected to go straight in to the team for this weekend.
James O’Connor is expected to take his place on the opposite wing and can also cover at fly half if needs be. A young and upcoming talent, O’Connor will certainly be eager to impress and is one to look out for this Saturday.
If the Lions are to be successful in this test series, then winning the first test this weekend is crucial to their chances. Brumbies Head Coach Jake White said after the famous win over the Lions’’ Who ever wins the first test will win the series’’ and he is right with that statement.
Can the Lions showcase their talent on the pinnacle stage of their careers? Can the different combinations and partnerships thrive on the biggest stage? Now is as good a time as any. There is no doubt this is the biggest chance to claim a test series since the victorious 1997 touring party. With New Zealand in 2017, we cannot have 20 years without a series victory. It is not befitting of the beauty that is the Lions Tour.
Lets hope in three days time, they provide a performance to match the pride of wearing the red jersey. Game on.
My XV to play Australia in the first test: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Brian O Driscoll, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 George North, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (Capt), 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Dan Cole, 17 Tom Croft, 18 Conor Murray, 19 Owen Farrell, 20 Richie Gray, 21 Richard Hibbard, 22 Simon Zebo, 23 Jamie Heaslip
Sport Is Everything. Dave Gantly.