It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to reveal his calls. Get ready for the Waratahs versus the Lions.
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Waratahs vs British and Irish Lions
The ARU announced back in February that the Wallabies would go into a three-week camp before the Test series began and in May, coach Robbie Deans named a 25-man squad that unsurprisingly contained a large number of Waratahs players. Given it has been known for months that the 'Tahs were never going to be able to field those players or indeed any injured ones against the Lions, it is a surprise that the 'news' this week that sixteen players would be missing caused such a strong media reaction. Described as "embarrassing" and a "diplomatic issue", with some odd reporting that the team were being forced to draft in 'Sevens players' (as opposed to their regular fly-half and reserve scrum-half being recalled so they could play), there was plenty of indignation about the tradition of tours being eroded away.
If you look back at previous tours, the combinations (half-backs, locks etc) that start the first Test rarely begin the warm-ups. This is the first sighting of Mike Phillips and Jonathan Sexton together, while the '09 duo (Phillips/Stephen Jones) and in '01 (Rob Howley/Jonny Wilkinson) also only featured once. The 2005 duo of Dwayne Peel and Jones didn't start any games before the Test series. In 2009, four of the six warm-up games featured three or less Test starters, while game two saw 13/15 in action and game four had 11/15. It has been slightly different due to injuries in 2013, but it does seem that games two and five were the ones earmarked to field the largest number of likely Test players. Gatland has mentioned this week that a larger squad may be required in future and there should be serious talks about what all parties want from the midweek games, if for no other reason than to end the whinging about 'weakened teams'. The Lions have shown on recent tours that they will protect key individuals before the Tests and clearly the host nation want to do the same.
A familiar face to the Leinster contingent, Michael Cheika has been tasked with reviving the fortunes of a 'Tahs team that lost twelve games in 2012. He made it clear there would be a change in culture and playing style and while the players reportedly got away with convincing previous coach Michael Foley that a light pre-season would be beneficial (it wasn't), they had no such joy with the new coach. Benn Robinson was vocal about the players being involved in the appointment of a new coach but found himself benched for Jeremy Tilse early on - indicating to the whole squad that Cheika was the boss. In 2012, eight defeats came by less than six points and three of them by a single point. Games are decided by small margins but more often than not, they failed at the basics - be it restarts, handling errors, or game management. More simply, they didn't look like a team that knew how to win games, they only outscored sides in the second-half twice and even then, one of those games was still lost. This Super Rugby season they have won 6/7 games at home by an average score of 26-22. All of those matches have been decided by a margin of six points or fewer and they are now seeming to be coming out on top in most of the close contests.
A key man for the 'Tahs is playmaker Bernard Foley. He has scored five tries, carried for 869m, made ten line-breaks and tops the competition for line-break assists with fifteen and try assists with twelve. The running rugby style and desire to stretch the defence has seen Foley involved heavily. I think the 7.5 available for him to score anytime with Paddy Power is worth a look and I have also backed him to score a brace at 46.0. The hosts have been bolstered by Rob Horne and Dave Dennis' return and have that behemoth Will Skelton to keep the Lions pack busy. You sadly can't bet on who will be involved in the first bout of pushing and shoving - but Tom Carter looks a favourite. They have scored 43 tries and 399 points in their fifteen games and wingers Peter Betham and Cam Crawford have twelve tries between them. There is no disagreement here that a very strong looking Lions team should be clear favourites and with Test places up for the grabs - the handicap of 24 points is understandable. However, I do think that Cheika will have the Waratahs fired up and they have shown all season that they can score so I will be taking a 11-20 point Lions win at 4.0 and looking to back points / tries for the hosts when the market is up. Good luck to you all.