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Expert Witness: Lions Down Under

30th May 2013 13:49

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Our panel for the Lions series: 298 Test caps

With the British and Irish Lions Tour to Australia only a few days away, Planet Rugby welcomes the return of the Expert Witness Column.

Each week during the series we will be joined by a panel of former international stars drawn from the Home Unions.

With an enviable collection of 298 international appearances, 13 Lions Test caps and 7 Lions tours between them, we are delighted to be able to share the views of Martin Corry, Geordan Murphy, Mark 'Ronnie' Regan and Martyn Williams.

We trust you will enjoy their thoughts as the British and Irish Lions commence their 2013 Australian adventure.

Many people forget that the British and Irish Lions have only toured Australia twice since 1966; a wonderful win in 1989 under Finlay Calder's leadership followed by controversial loss back in 2001. On both tours the Lions played some scintillating rugby throughout the respective series.

Recalling the 2001 tour, the Lions produced one of the finest performances in memory during the first Test, when a 21 year-old Brian O'Driscoll, and Richard Hill inspired the team to a magnificent 29-13 win at Brisbane's Gabba.

The BIL's first half showing in the second Test in Melbourne also seemed to be heading to victory, until wanton thuggery by Nathan Grey on the dominant Hill removed the Saracen from the series with severe concussion. Australia enjoyed a new lease of life thereafter, with flank George Smith freed from the attention of Hill at the breakdown, and emerged victorious with a storming second half performance led by three-quarters Matt Burke and Joe Roff, who capitalised on a series of catastrophic errors from the Lions.

The third Test at Sydney went down to the wire, indeed to the very last line-out, when Justin Harrison, the man cruelly nicknamed 'Plank' by Lions wing Austin Healey, stole the final throw of Irish Keith Wood's Lions career, with the visitors camped in the Wallaby 22 in the final minute, to take the rubber 2-1.

Martin Corry, who featured on the other flank to Hill in the first Test and won three caps during the series, recalls that tour with mixed emotions:

"Without doubt, I rate that tour as the highlight of my career, and in particular, the first Test will always be the best performance I was involved with. However, on the flip side, it was hugely frustrating to lose. We were, in my opinion, the better side, and losing hurts all the more when you have only yourselves to blame.

"The media often cite the Hill incident and the lost line-out as key moments, but that's wholly wrong. We gave away silly points in the second test, with Jonny Wilkinson's miss pass being the worst of it, and in the third Test, we had 79 minutes to carve a victory before the lost line-out."

"Two incidents do not define a Test series performance, but without question, that was the series 'that got away'."

Welsh flanker Martyn Williams, another 2001 tourist and a player renowned for his footballing skills, is a firm believer in a horse for courses approach in Australia:

"I am pretty pleased with the squad Warren Gatland has chosen. Before the Welsh win against England in the Six Nations, a few spots were up for grabs, and head-to-head match ups like Chris Robshaw versus Sam Warburton and George North against Chris Ashton really settled the Lions management's thoughts."

"In order to succeed in Australia, you need players with pace and the ability to play on hard, fast pitches. I believe that Gats, a man brought up on Southern Hemisphere rugby, has selected on a horses for courses approach and that could prove telling. There is immense pace and mobility in all areas of the pack. The midfield has a balance of direct running, intelligence and committed defence, exactly what is needed in Australia."

Corry, although agreeing that the squad is of a high standard, conversely has a concern about balance and penetration:

"There's 37 very good players there, but I am yet to see the guy who is going to put his hand up and make it a career-defining tour, in the manner of Mike Teague in 1989 and Keith Wood in 1997. I am also concerned about the midfield in terms of both workload and creativity.

"There's a lack of a player who can fulfill the playmaker role at 12, although I would agree Gatland has selected the form centres. But in doing so, he's also taken only two fly halves, who cannot play in the same side together, simply because one of them will be needed three days later.

"The squad is crying out for Jonny Wilkinson, and I would love to see him involved. He can play either in the centre or at outside half, and that's exactly the channel where I believe we are weak," observed the man capped seven times for the Lions.

"Billy Twelvetrees is also very unlucky to miss out, as he is exactly the type of 10/12 playmaker we are missing."

Last week, the British and Irish Lions lost Northampton Saints hooker Dylan Hartley, to yet another on-field incident. Williams shows little sympathy in his summary of the incident:

"Although Dylan has been removed from the party due to his red card in the Premiership Final, I applaud Wayne Barnes for doing the right thing. Hartley is a robust player, but there is no place for abusing officials in the game regardless of how 'competitive' you are, and although Dylan will be devastated, it's difficult to be sympathetic given his record.

"Rory Best would have been very close to selection in any case, and I don't believe that the Lions will lose anything from Best's forced inclusion."

Mark Regan, a master of the hooking craft, agrees completely with Williams:

"If Hartley were to do that during a Lions' series, the media furore and impact on the Tests would be enormous," commented 'Ronnie'.

"Having control is key to the forward battle, particularly as a front rower, and this was an act of gross immaturity and stupidity.

"The Australian media will have the squad under the microscope, and any lapses in behavioural standards will be publicised, and rightly so. The players are representing the Home Unions, and that's a responsibility and a legacy that is the equal of any team in any sport you care to name, and the players need to both understand and embrace their heritage.

"In any case, Rory Best will offer a lot to the party, and I believe that Wales' Richard Hibbard will be the starting Test hooker, alongside the mobile props Cian Healy and Dan Cole, with Tom Youngs' direct running adding impact as a replacement."

The bench is a key feature that all of our Experts have identified. In modern day Test matches, the game is a 23-man affair, and Williams in particular believes the Lions are well served in this area:

"Everyone is naturally talking about the starting XV, but right now, choosing that is like picking lottery numbers!" laughed the Welsh flanker.

"The bench is going to have a huge influence in the series particularly when you look at the 'impact' players in the Lions squad. As an example, the back row I believe will start is Tom Croft, Toby Falatau and skipper Sam Warburton. If that's the case, players like Justin Tipuric coming on can change the pattern and allow Sam to move to eight or six. Sean O'Brien too can play in any of the loose forward positions, and brings huge physicality to the side. Equally, if Mike Phillips starts at scrum-half, with his trademark power and sniping, Ben Youngs can offer a counterpoint with his pace and kicking.

"It is about being able to change the dynamic with reactive (not pre-ordained) tactical substitutions, and this is one area where the selectors have done a very good job," observed the big Welshman.

With a curtain raiser in Hong Kong versus the Barbarians on Saturday, the Lions will pick their team based upon a core of Welsh players due to the Club commitments of the Irish and English based players.

Corry, who played in the corresponding pre-tour match against Argentina in 2005, believes this will be a useful run out for the Lions:

The Argentina game in 2005 was a new concept, and whilst a nice run out, we felt that it didn't really have the merit of a cap won on tour," said Corry.

"I believe that the mystique of 'the jersey' comes from earning it during a tour of immense pressure and is a reward for performances in the hardest rugby environments- a full British and Irish Lions Test series."

"In the Hong Kong game, I think things are slightly different in as much as the Lions have been together a couple of weeks and maybe there is also a wider agenda in terms of game promotion overseas. However, after watching England's performance, you have to question what challenge the Barbarians will have for the Lions? It will be an interesting run-out nonetheless, despite the selection process being hampered by the unavailability of the English and Irish based lads who played over the weekend, and I am sure that the match will be enjoyed by all of the fans over there."

That is it for this week's Expert Witness. We wait with interest for the opening skirmishes, the selection musings and the arrival of the most famous of all rugby sides in Australia and we are back on Thursday 6th June for more thoughts.

Corry, Williams and Regan spoke to James While.