Monday 25 September 2017

James Lawton: Lions can sharpen claws with Dragons' fire

Gatland must put faith in Welsh winners and restore killer instinct to wounded pride

Lions are supposed to roar, aren't they? Win or lose, they are not expected to lie in the tall grass weighing up their options – and certainly not hoping to sneak away with something.

Unfortunately, and especially in view of all the hype concerning the epic nature of the challenge Down Under, that would have been the extent of their achievement had they arrived in Sydney this week with the series won.

If Leigh Halfpenny had found a few more yards on top of his other-worldly consistency, he would no doubt be a sporting giant.

But, if Halfpenny is a proven, magnificent operator in an extremely tough arena, he would still have been authoring a Lions victory that scarcely reached knee-high to those created by Barry John in 1971 and Willie John McBride three years later.

They were triumphs in New Zealand and South Africa that owed everything to the belligerent belief that the best of their game would be decisively better than that delivered by the southern hemisphere powerhouses.

The Aussie team that won in Melbourne, and now has everything to play for this Saturday, will never be regarded as a powerhouse.

Eccentrically assembled by their embattled coach Robbie Deans, largely hidden away before the first Test in Brisbane, these are Wallabies who have the extraordinary brilliance of scrum-half Will Genia, the exciting potential of Israel Folau and, most threateningly going into the crunch game, that old Aussie inclination to take the battle to the other fellas.

But, man for man, aura for aura, the truth is they should already be dead and buried.

If they were indeed so, if Halfpenny's kick had picked up a few yards more buoyancy, the defining image of the Lions' triumph would have been the brisk and brilliant one of the full-back going about his work so coolly.

STRENGTH

This, though, would have not have captured best the inherent strength and dimension of Warren Gatland's tourists.

Such a picture was already being flashed around the rugby world. It was of George North, the single most potent weapon in his team's armoury, carrying both the ball and his rival Folau over his shoulder, in a statement of competitive rage and nerve which has so rarely surfaced when the Lions have the ball in their hands.

Defensively, we have seen soul-stirring grandeur. Sam Warburton had already shown much character in fighting injury and leading his team to their first-Test victory.

On Saturday, his impact before a new and deeply worrying hamstring injury was monstrous in repelling the more ambitious running Wallabies. So too was that of his compatriot Dan Lydiate.

Brian O'Driscoll has also been Herculean in his attempt to stop the Aussies at the pass.

The Lions have been resilient in the face of injuries and dismaying problems in the scrum and line-out, but when have they taken the fight to the enemy?

It was done most dramatically when in Brisbane North gathered in a kick and then ran for the line with a sublime combination of speed, power and judgment.

If anything ever offered a team an early opportunity to take another look at itself and its greatest strength, this was surely it. Yet a week on, North was required to make a statement of wrath, even indignation, that was almost biblical.

He spent most of his time watching the Australians seeking ways to release their most talented players. In the meantime, Halfpenny routinely slotted his penalties – even if the worry was strong that there wouldn't be enough of them – and the Lions resolved to hang on.

They elected to defend a one-score advantage – a decision that was brittle to the point of inviting self-destruction.

So what does Gatland do now once he has checked his MASH unit medical room?

One argument, which is certainly approved of in this quarter, is that the coach puts rather more faith in the players who did so well for him in the last World Cup and then grew again last season when they powered their way, with coruscating force, to the Six Nations title.

Yes, we're talking about the Welsh players who gathered so much momentum on their way to eviscerating England at the Millennium Stadium.

That was a performance built on ferocious forward power and superbly augmented by killing finish at the try-line.

Ever since the Lions squad was selected, the impact of that one-off slaughter has been dwindling, partly because of finely drawn debates over the merits of say, the extrovert game of Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip and the awesome productivity of his Welsh rival Toby Faletau.

In the blizzard of selection revisionism following Saturday's defeat, one leading aficionado makes the case for no less than 11 Welshmen in the Sydney showdown.

Assuming Jamie Roberts and Warburton are fit, this team would read: Halfpenny; Bowe, Davies, Roberts, North; Sexton, Phillips; Corbisiero, Hibbard, Adam Jones; Gray, Alun-Wyn Jones; Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau.

This, it is true, is an awful lot of Welshmen but then it is also an awful lot of team.

Certainly, there could be no inclination to diminish its potential in the wake of that extraordinary performance against England – or at the World Cup in New Zealand, where the Welsh impact was nothing less than riveting.

The Welsh had a unity of purpose, a perspective on their strengths, which became an increasing source of certainty, and this is something which is maybe worth remembering now that the Australians, for all their own imperfections, are showing a much surer instinct for what they are trying to do.

It is, basically, to attack, and to keep on doing it until they get their rewards.

By comparison, the Lions have been content to wait in the bushes and it is a state of affairs that has clearly created widespread frustration, not least in the attacking icon O'Driscoll. He admitted that the Lions, thus far, haven't shown much.

But then doing so is not so easy when you spend so much of your time in the long grass. (© Independent News Service)

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