Planet Rugby

The British & Irish Lions


Preview: Australia v Lions

28th June 2013 07:42


Sam Warburton leads out Lions 1st test

Within reach: The Lions could claim their first series win in 16 years

The ball is in Australia's court as the hosts have no margin for error in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions in Melbourne on Saturday.

Indeed, unlike on their previous two tours, the Lions have managed to draw first blood and take a 1-0 lead in the three-Test series, but let's call a spade a spade: victory in Brisbane came thanks to a healthy dose of good fortune. Or, more accurately, a combination of some wayward kicking and awful luck for the Wallabies.

This tour had been billed as a showdown between the Lions' power up front and the Wallabies' attacking arsenal amongst their backs, but, enthralling as it was, the first Test didn't quite go to script.

The visitors' pack didn't dominate the way many had expected and a horrendous spate of injuries - which left the Aussies with a loose forward playing in midfield for much of the second half - ensured that James O'Connor and co. didn't run circles around the men in red.

No, it wasn't quite what we expected - it was much more. The Australians were shown in no uncertain terms that the Lions too have dangerous runners (George North's try will not soon be forgotten) and the Lions were shown that the forwards in gold and green will not be easily bullied.

Both coaches claimed in the aftermath that they felt their team deserved the victory, yet Warren Gatland will know deep inside that if Kurtley Beale had worn longer studs, or if O'Connor had landed those early penalties, or if Christian Leali'ifano, Berrick Barnes, Pat McCabe and Adam Ashley-Cooper has not been struck by the misfortune of could very well have gone the other way.

If, if, if, if...

If my autie had balls, she'd be my uncle. But she doesn't. Nothing will change the result printed in the newspaper last Sunday morning. The harsh reality is that the Wallabies have zero time to dwell on what could have been, only the future counts now and win they must. As Sam Warburton pointed out midweek, "momentum would completely swing if Australia won. They'd be going into another home game to finish after winning a game." The Lions will not be considering the fact that they will have another bite at the cherry next week, they want to get the job done on Saturday.

The resultant situation means the burden of pressure, on both sides, has been turned up a notch, and it is in these high-pressure circumstances that truly great players rise above the rest.

"[The weight of expectation] is something we are well aware of, but you can't let that weight of expectation dominate your performance in the game," said Gatland on Thursday when talking about how winning the series had the potential to be a "life-changing moment" for the men in red.

"It can't consume us, and it is important it doesn't do that. We need to have that clarity of being mentally strong. If that weight of expectation is too heavy, you can sometimes go into your shell and it can constrict your play.

"We have to make sure we get the balance right between identifying that, talking about that, but also giving the players the freedom to play, to go out there and express themselves and win this Test series."

For the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, who has experienced the bitter taste of a series defeat three times already, Saturday has the potential to be the defining moment of his career. 'Don't leave this opportunity behind' has been the message from the senior players in the Lions squad all week and 'Drico' is amongst those who can be counted on to rise to the occasion.

For Australia, motivation will come from a different source. They will feed off the belief that they were the better side in the first Test. Confidence doesn't seem to be a something that Robbie Deans needs to create artificially in his squad... nope, his young guns are so confident in their ability, they have no qualms about grabbing a burger with their mates at 4am a few days before the biggest game of their lives.

Speaking of discipline, the referees of both the past weekend and this coming Saturday have been the subject of innumerable column inches. As stated above, we can't change the past so there is no point is reviewing Chris Pollocks' performance, but Craig Joubert - the man in the middle this weekend - is worth a mention.

The South African, regarded by some as the best in the business, but accused of lapses on big occasions by others, will not tolerate players lying on the ball at the breakdown and has been known to be to very strict - bordering on pedantic - when is come to the scrum engagement.

Wallabies tighthead prop Ben Alexander has already mentioned that his opposite number Adam Jones is a master of "little games being played around the engagement." Free kicks and penalties from scrums could have swung the result in Brisbane and both teams will give the set piece particular attention.

Let's hope it doesn't turned into a stop-start penalty-fest because after the wonderful entertainment of the first Test, the scene is set for a memorable occasion, irrespective of the result.

Players to watch:

For Australia: We picked him as one to watch last week, but Christian Leali'ifano's Test debut lasted just seconds before he was forced from the field seeing stars. After Australia's woes at the kicking tee last week, the Brumbies centre returns as the hosts' first-choice place-kicker, which will obviously be massively significant. But his role will extend beyond just putting ball to boot. Indeed, equally comfortable at 10, Leali'ifano was initially picked as much for his distribution skills as his kicking game and his early swap with the straight-running McCabe certainly changed the face of the Wallaby attack in Brisbane. The Lions defence will have extra playmaker to deal with - half a second wasted hesitating on either O'Connor or Leali'ifano, could be enough to open a gap for the other.

For Lions: Much has been said about the balance of the Lions back row and it was big call for Gatland to omit Tom Croft - one of the best players during the early part of the tour - from of the starting XV. Enter tackle machine Dan Lydiate who no doubt will be hunting Will Genia. But he has also been picked to add more grunt to the Lions back row, as the visitors look to raise their game at the breakdown and limit the Wallabies' options. "We have decided to add a bit more physicality up front. We have chosen horses for courses," said Gatland, in anticipation of referee Joubert's interpretations at the rucks. "Brutal" was the word used by the coach. Wallabies, you've been warned.

Head-to-head: All four tries last week were scored by the wings. The star of the show in the first Test, Israel Folau's attacking talents will be join by the Brumbies' Joe Tomane, who was born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, and returned to rugby union last year after four seasons in the 13-man code. Tommy Bowe is widely recognised as one of the best defensive wings in world rugby. While Australia's latest League converts will win just their second international caps respectively, Bowe is a veteran of 51 Tests. Slotted straight back into the starting XV as he returns from injury (at the expense of Alex Cuthbert who did nothing wrong in the opener), the Irishman is a "massive big-game player" according to Gatland. "One thing you can't do is coach experience," the New Zealander added. Another thing you can't coach is that infamous X-Factor that seems to seep from Folau's pores. The same can be said of George North, who scored one of the best tries you'll ever see last week. A classic duel awaits.

Previous results:
2013: Lions won 23-21 in Brisbane
2001: Australia won 29-23 in Sydney - Australia won 35-14 in Melbourne - Lions won 29-13 in Brisbane
1989: Lions won 19-18 in Sydney - Lions won 19-12 in Brisbane - Australia won 30-12 in Sydney

Prediction: History has a nasty habit of repeating itself. The Lions won in Brisbane in 2001 before losing in Melbourne a week later. Lions fans desperate for a first series win after 16 years might have to wait at least a week longer. Australia by six points.

The teams:

Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Will Genia, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ben Mowen, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 James Slipper, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Rob Horne, 23 Jesse Mogg.

British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 George North, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Makovina Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Tom Croft, 20 Sean O'Brien, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Alex Cuthbert.

Date: Saturday, June 29
Venue: Docklands Stadium (Etihad Stadium), Melbourne
Kick-off: 20.00 AEST (11.00 BST, 10.00 GMT)
Weather: 11C. Closed roof.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Romain Poite (France)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

By Ross Hastie