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Preview: Australia v British and Irish Lions

20th June 2013 10:03

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British and Irish Lions 2013  Sam Warburton Suncorp Stadium

Leader of Lions: Sam Warburton

Over a decade in the making, the British and Irish Lions' quest for a first Test series win since 1997 begins in Brisbane on Saturday.

It has been 12 years since the Lions last faced Australia, yet the 2001 tour is still viewed by many as one of the great missed opportunities for a series win in Lions history.

The objective this time round has always been obvious. Bring four nations together certainly, but all that matters is winning this Test series. To fail in that regard again, for the fourth consecutive time, would put the future of what is a remarkable institution firmly in doubt.

With that in mind, veteran Paul O'Connell conceded this week that 2013 has been a tour unlike any other. A noticeable quantity of the hi-jinks and camaraderie, so visible in the 2009 squad that lost in South Africa, has been sacrificed for what the Munsterman described as "savage competition" for Test places.

That hunt for a spot in this Saturday's XV has brought the best form out of those Lions who have seen it all before - O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll, Mike Phillips and also Alun Wyn Jones.

Given that eight players will make their Lions Test debut in Brisbane, including captain Sam Warburton, those who have faced this challenge before are needed more than ever.

Of the eight new caps perhaps the biggest surprise is Alex Corbisiero. The odds on the England prop making this tour were exceedingly long before selection - particularly when his club boss Brian Smith described his knee as "a mess." Yet a late season revival and a start for England in South America were enough for the Lions coaching staff to make the call when Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins were ruled out.

The reason for his selection ahead of the impressive Mako Vunipola is best summed up by Warren Gatland himself:

"There's no doubt Robbie Deans will have looked at Mako technically at scrum time and Alex is a little bit sounder. Mako coming off the bench will give us impetus, but Alex is better technically and will give us the edge in the scrum."

It speaks volumes of Corbisiero that despite just one start for 50 minutes, along with two substitute appearances against the Waratahs and Brumbies, he has walked off the plane and into the Test side.

Having that scrum edge referenced by Gatland is all well but the Lions also need a working lineout. Too often on tour their structure has disintegrated. The reason for Tom Youngs' selection over Richard Hibbard is that the Lions have won 95% of their own ball with the Leicester Tiger throwing in.

Wishful thinking might be that the Lions' lineout work so far has been deliberately uninspiring, with the best schemes kept under wraps for Saturday. If that is the truth, then they must click into place quickly.

Tom Croft's sprinting score against the Waratahs secured his spot in the side, but if anything his skill in the loose and lineout overshadows the hard work he puts in at the ruck. To believe that Gatland has simply picked a luxury on the blindside flank is far from the truth. To start Croft over his personal favourite Dan Lydiate, whilst omitting Justin Tipuric and Sean O'Brien, proves there is no Welsh bias.

Croft though, along with Jamie Heaslip, will have to produce a mountainous work-rate to repel the Wallabies and Michael Hooper in an area that Australia will view as a Lions weakness to be exploited.

Robbie Deans has been bold in his selection of three new caps in Ben Mowen, Christian Lealiifano and Israel Folau, but their form has been difficult to ignore.

Folau is the blockbuster name but he has been given the unenviable task of containing George North on the biggest stage. Currently in only his first season in Rugby Union, Folau's rise is not unexpected given his raw athletic ability, but it has been rapid and the Lions can find holes to exploit in his game.

That is not the only area however where Australia are fallible. Their scrum is now solid, their lineout effective with James Horwill back to run the show, but the 10-12 channel between James O'Connor and the inexperienced Lealiifano is glaring.

O'Connor is one of the most talented players of his generation, but, as of before this Test, he is not a true international fly-half. Saturday may shatter that perception but for now, the Lions loom over his shoulder.

Three weeks in camp together without a match have given the Wallabies plenty of preparation time to avoid the disasters of previous seasons - they have lost to Samoa and Scotland in their first matches of 2011 and 2012, albeit with a weaker team put out.

The core of the backline is intact with Genia, O'Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper and an out-of-position Berrick Barnes. With four astute kickers in the backs including Lealiifano, there is an indication of playing for territory and hoping that Hooper, and later Liam Gill, can force penalties at the breakdown.

Truthfully when the two sides are matched up side-by-side, there is little to choose between them.

Just one Lion - the talismanic O'Driscoll - remains from the squad that toured Australia in 2001. If any of the current pride can replicate the impact he made in that 1st Test, the Lions will be well on their way. We are in for a fine Test series.

Ones to watch:

For Australia: It would be wrong to not talk about a Wallaby debutant, but it is not Folau. Christian Lealiifano has been at the heart of the Brumbies resurgence over the last two seasons under Jake White - a transformation that has taken them to the top of the Australian Conference. Lealiifano as a result has come of age, working well either at 10 or 12 and bringing great vision, pace and guile to his backline. It is one majorly daunting task for the uncapped centre to debut against the best from the British Isles, but one he will rise to.

For British and Irish Lions: The Fox. Few expected to see Jonathan Davies wearing the 12 shirt for the Lions when he was selected, but needs must with the injuries to Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi leaving the Lions threadbare in midfield. Davies' inclusion though is no shock - for all of the majesty of O'Driscoll, the Welsh centre has been quite outstanding on this tour throughout. It would have seemed harsh to exclude him regardless of Roberts' fitness. Instead the Lions field an unlikely combination, but two outstanding individual talents.

Head-to-head: Two influential number nines in Will Genia and Mike Phillips. Genia is perhaps best summed up by his absurd try in the 2011 Super Rugby Final - when nothing appears on to everyone else, he will make something happen. Possessing a strong kicking game, not to mention vision, pace and leadership abilities, there is arguably no greater scrum-half in the world other than perhaps Kahn Fotuali'i.

Phillips is a very different beast. At 6 ft 3, his six-inch height advantage is seen as crucial to the Lions success both by containing the fiery Wallaby scrum-half and taking him on when in possession. A capable strike-runner himself, Phillips has that ability needed to turn close Tests if he can find enough space.

Recent Results: 2001: Australia won 29-23 in Sydney, Australia won 35-14 in Melbourne, the Lions won 29-13 in Brisbane. 1989: the Lions won 19-18 in Sydney, the Lions won 19-12 in Brisbane, Australia won 30-12 in Sydney

Prediction: With seven matches on tour under their belt and with the Wallabies coming into this untested, the Lions should have the faster start and with it the victory. Lions by 5!

The teams:

Australia: 15 Berrick Barnes, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 Digby Ioane, 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 Pat McCabe, 23 Kurtley Beale.

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

Date: Saturday June 22
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 8.05pm AEST (11.05am UKST, 10.05 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Romain Poite (France)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_