Thursday 21 September 2017

Error-prone tourists must put this Test series to bed before Aussies and Deans awake from their slumber

If Quade Cooper gets a call-up, it could be curtains for the Lions, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A seminal moment took place after the final whistle – the post-match huddle. He's not the captain but you know he's in charge. Verbal fortification after a win that came, in the end, against the odds and it was delivered with the unhurried grace of a patrician.

Each gesticulation underlining what was required for next week. Armed with a vendetta there will be nothing that is going to stop O'Driscoll fulfilling his destiny.

He wants this series and this was laid out to his team-mates. Either implicitly or obliquely, this Test match series is there for the winning. O'Driscoll's role in this match was, as it has been over the last two or three seasons, as a catalyst and as a springboard.

It may be a secondary role but it is no less important. He led the team in tackles with 11, Warburton was on the same number but he actually missed one.

O'Driscoll would not under any circumstances miss any tackle; it was too important to him. A lot of what he is asked to do within the game plan may be seen as chores or something that might be deemed to be below his station – nevertheless they are vitally important.

For the Lions' second try, scored by Alex Cuthbert from a beautifully timed cut through the middle, O'Driscoll is asked to do the prep work like a junior.

"Brian would you like to run in front of the ball and take their player out legally to create space so that our winger can come through?"

It wasn't too subtle and it required very little skill to run the line. I suppose it's a bit like asking Michelangelo to paint your garden fence. All his skill and mastery was left unused but if his value to the team is to run lines like that to make space, well then so be it.

Mr Pollock pinged him early for going into the breakdown and foraging for the ball as he normally does but he was told on two occasions that he must "support his own weight".

The infuriating arbitrariness of Pollock at the breakdown led to a lot of frustration. This is the problem with this three-match Test series – there is no uniformity of interpretation and the Lions certainly lost out on a number of occasions at the breakdown courtesy of Mr Pollock.

The celebrations were muted yesterday and justifiably so because next time the Lions not only have to take on a much smarter Wallaby side who will have got their combinations right in their three-quarters, but they will also have to deal with Craig Joubert in the middle.

If Joubert produces a performance like he did in the World Cup final in Auckland in RWC 2011, then the Lions are in trouble.

The Lions made quite a few errors and their pre-Test programme was hopelessly inadequate in terms of preparing themselves for the pace of this game and they made simple mistakes which the Aussies never punished them fully for.

There was a lack of control too. Ben Mowen had a big game for the Wallabies on the blindside – he only put in 10 tackles all afternoon but his effectiveness was not purely limited to that. Mike Phillips, the Lions' "light up" player, was extinguished by Mowen's wolfish rapacity.

Most of those 10 tackles went in on Phillips and he closed him down and corralled him into a spiritual cul de sac.

Phillips had a very ineffectual 60 minutes on the park before he was called ashore – that may or may not be a bad thing. It is rare that such a forceful personality will be locked out of the game for a second match in a row.

Jonny Sexton was unfailingly lucid and controlled the game in a far more intelligent way for the Lions. His performance was understated but quite deliberate and his guile and game management was in stark contrast to James O'Connor whose callow offerings were distinctly lacking.

As it was in the 1997 series, place kicking was again a major factor. A 44 per cent success rate with the boot means that the Wallabies will be going away with a silver medal unless they improve in this area.

It is significant that the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne has a roof and so the match will be played in dry conditions. Now the call of the series has to be made – Adam Ashley Cooper dislocated his shoulder and will be out for the rest of the series, Christian Leali'fano's injury looked like a concussion and he could be missing from next week, while Pat McCabe is an unlikely starter too.

Berrick Barnes' injury did not look too serious but after his insipid performance you would not be certain that Robbie Deans will pick him again. Does Deans have the cojones to pick Quade Cooper after all the history between the two of them over the last season?

It is the key call of the series. If Cooper plays and plays in dry conditions then the Wallabies will be favourites to win the second Test with a backline that actually knows what it is doing and is a far better threat with the ball in hand. They also will never be as profligate again at the breakdown where they got turned over 14 times mainly because their 'keep-ball' player Michael Hooper was playing in the centre.

You get the sense that the Wallabies will have learned more from yesterday than the Lions and that is why O'Driscoll's exhortations and his experience will be so vital for this coming week – allied with Warburton's and O'Connell's input they have enough generals in the camp to think their way through to winning the series.

One of Gatland's big calls was the selection of Tom Youngs who had a super game. The Leicester hooker had the perfect lineout game: 12 throws, 12 wins.

The simplicity of their lineout strategy was telling and in the post-match interview a home truth shone through. He admitted that most of their ball went to the front – four to Heaslip and four to Croft and I wish some people would follow his example closer to home when he said, "Sometimes it's better to just have the ball".

All those risky overthrows at the back of the lineout have been eradicated. Somebody, presumably Gatland, has made an executive decision – no turnovers at lineout time and keep the ball.

The Lions scrum though wasn't hugely impressive, apart from one muscular heave in the eighth minute where they got a free-kick for early engagement. They declined to tap and go and went back to the scrum to mark their territory and got a big drive on for a full penalty.

Other than that, Adam Jones and Corbisiero found the pace of the game too sapping on the legs and they did not dominate with the degree of certainty that was expected before the game and they critically coughed up a scrum turnover in the 66th minute in a position where they could have closed out the game.

Quite apart from Deans' call on Cooper, Gatland also has to make a call at inside-centre and if Roberts is even halfway fit, he will come back into the side as Gatland's game plan revolves around him and Jonathan Davies wasn't quite as impressive yesterday as he has been in some of the warm-up matches.

He will also have to name O'Brien on the bench – Lydiate is a superior player but bringing him on with 10 to go isn't really going to either close out a game or help chase a game late on.

It was a match of great quality and the skill level displayed by all the try scorers was phenomenal.

If the Lions don't nail it next week, the Wallabies will be too clever and too strong in the third Test.

Irish Independent

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