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Preview: Australia v Lions

04th July 2013 18:38

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Australia v Lions 3rd test

It all comes down to Sydney...

What a week. A hearing to question a hearing followed by one of the most high-profile omissions in Lions history. This 2013 series finale is good to go.

Just like in 2001, the British and Irish Lions tour will go down to the wire against the Wallabies amid off-field drama worthy of Ramsay Street.

Twelve years ago we had Austin Healey's ghost-written column that stirred the pot while this time Down Under...well, the lid has come off in 2013.

Where else to begin than with selection. Warren Gatland couldn't have imagined on what scale the fallout his axing of Brian O'Driscoll would create heading into this weekend. Social media went into meltdown on Wednesday with messages of surprise from New Zealand playmaker Daniel Carter, former Wallabies centre Matt Giteau and thousands of fans as O'Driscoll was not in the 23 - when surely the Lions were short on leaders.

We then had a 'Justice for BOD' facebook group, Hitler's reaction on youtube and several photo-shopped pictures as the dust refused to settle.

We reckon Lions legend Phil Bennett's selection summary was the most damning: "Everything's been lovely and...this morning it's all gone to pieces," he stated.

It leaves Gatland running the fine line of being either a genius should the Lions be victorious or vilified in defeat, as once again questions are raised over players having coaches fighting their corner. Like it or not, relationships and familiarities have played a large part in 2013.

One wonders if the lack of leadership - missing Paul O'Connell, Sam Warburton and O'Driscoll - will affect the performance in this high-pressure game at ANZ Stadium.

Australia meanwhile have gone the other route and added 2001 series winner George Smith to their starting XV, despite openside Michael Hooper's excellent recent form.

Those who have watched Super Rugby this season will know Smith is an impressive ball carrier for the Brumbies, regularly standing out at first-phase, crashing it up in midfield before Ben Mowen, Christian Lealiifano et al contribute. Expect to see Smith running at first receiver off line-outs as they know occupying Jamie Roberts in midfield defence will go a long way to allowing the likes of James O'Connor and Lealiifano to create for the backline.

Back to the Lions and while I feel Toby Faletau is deserving of the number eight jersey, I find it hard to fathom why Tom Croft fell out of Gatland's thinking after the first Test. The blindside was statistically their strongest forward in Brisbane but found himself down amongst the replacements in Melbourne. This week, when the Lions will surely need Croft's unrivalled abilities, he falls out of the 23 altogether. A trio of Faletau, Sean O'Brien and Croft would have been ideal for me. It's also worth noting he is another to have Lions Test experience.

These are all words - like so many other people's since Wednesday - that will be eaten should the British and Irish Lions prevail, winning their first Test series since 1997.

Momentum though is, of course, with the home side after the Melbourne victory and even O'Driscoll recently revealed that in 2001 Australia carried that critical element through from the second Test into the third and the Lions ultimately could not stop it. In that very same interview - two weeks ago with George Gregan no less - he said that "as a youngster I thought experience was overrated but as an old fellah I realise it's underrated". Another interesting twist to this tale, which is furthered by the returning Smith's words this week.

"I played on instinct in 2001. My rugby awareness is a lot better nowadays," he said. "My understanding of players and why we do what we do, why you run these lines, why you tackle a certain way. There's a lot of things you pick up by playing. I've played a lot of rugby and if you pick up one thing each time you play, there is a wealth of knowledge there."

You can't make this stuff up in a week that has seen Lions supporters baying for their own coaching staff's blood. Not quite the mind games we were expecting as more than 30,000 Lions fans descend on Sydney for a match that could create legends. Red or Gold?

Ones to watch:

For Australia: 32-year-old George Smith last played for the Wallabies against Wales in Cardiff in 2009. But such is the pedigree of this experienced flanker that coach Robbie Deans has named him in his side after seven weeks out with a knee injury. With 110 Test appearances, he is Australia's third-most capped player behind George Gregan (139) and Nathan Sharpe (116). It is worth mentioning that Deans has selected both Ben McCalman and Michael Hooper on the bench as a precaution so we may well see Ben Mowen, Hooper and McCalman together if Smith's knee doesn't hold for the full 80 minutes in Sydney.

For B&I Lions: Let's take poor Jonathan Davies out of the spotlight for this one and instead go for the recalled Mike Phillips. The nine position has been the most frequented over the past fortnight as all three tourists have been given opportunities to impress. Phillips was first, helping the Lions to victory despite struggling to ignite the backline due to making too many steps before passing or instead finding contact. Ben Youngs was promptly called in but now finds himself where Phillips was last week. The Welshman's form is critical.

Head-to-head: The return of Jamie Roberts is huge for the tourists as the 2009 player of the tour's ability to bust over the advantage line cannot be undervalued. Whether it was Jonathan Davies, Brian O'Driscoll or Manu Tuilagi outside him, they would benefit from the Welshman's power. Christian Lealiifano is in front of him this week after bouncing back from his Brisbane minute with a great full debut in Melbourne. George Smith's inclusion is noteworthy after Roberts was named. I expect Smith, who is used as a regular carrier at in Canberra, to target Roberts in defence, thus allowing Lealiifano maximum possible space to attack without the former Cardiff man in his face. So many factors in this intriguing battle.

Recent results:

2013: Australia won 16-15 in Melbourne - 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: Australia are slight favourites with the bookies in a game that could honestly go either way. The inclusion of Smith, Roberts, Faletau and Alex Corbisiero adds to the subplot but I feel that despite BOD's absence, the tourists are set to end the drought. Lions by 2!

The teams:

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

British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones (c), 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Richie Gray, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Manu Tuilagi.

Date: Saturday, July 6
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 20.00 AEST (11.00 BST, 10.00 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Craig Joubert (South Africa)

By Adam Kyriacou
@PlanetRugbyAK