independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Conor George: 'If Lions don't challenge in the air this will be no contest'

Leinster line-out legend O'Kelly believes set-piece solution must be found, writes Conor George

THE Lions need to come up with a plan to make their line-out relevant if they are to win tomorrow's series-deciding Test in Sydney, according to former Ireland international Malcolm O'Kelly.

O'Kelly, a line-out specialist with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, believes the absence of Paul O'Connell because of injury has damaged the Lions in this area and that a major improvement is needed if they are to beat Australia.

"Paul would have had the line-out set up to suit himself and now the other second-rows have to work around that. Finding the right balance to suit the different personnel is challenging," said O'Kelly.

"Different teams have their own line-out system. Leinster, for example, have had the same line-out for the last four or five years, ever since Leo (Cullen) came back. Leicester have a very specific line-out – as do Wales, Ireland and England.

"When you go into a Lions camp, you don't want to give away your own line-out, so you have to dream up new calls and new plays and put it all together very quickly.

"The Wallabies have had years of building up their line-out. It is so much easier for them because of continuity ... that is a definite advantage."

Instead of being a weapon for the Lions to secure quick attacking ball for their backs, the line-out has almost become a liability. What is especially frustrating is that on the rare occasions they have secured good ball, their forwards have either mauled it effectively or the backs have been able to attack the Australian line so quickly they have created gaps.

More typical of what has been happening the Lions line-out, however, was the manner in which they ruined a huge opportunity of snatching a late win last Saturday. A line-out inside the Australian '22' in the dying minutes offered the Lions a heaven-sent opportunity of clinching the game, but the ball was thrown long and possession was turned over. It was the winning and losing of the game.

You cannot but feel that had O'Connell been on the pitch, the ball would have been thrown to the front and the forwards would have gone through a series of plays designed to set up Jonathan Sexton for a drop at goal or force a close-range penalty.

We have seen precious little of the Lions backline in the two Tests and Brian O'Driscoll has paid a heavy price for that. But the problem is that the Lions have been unable to secure clean ball in the set-pieces.

"One of the issues is that the calling of the line-out is being done when the players are in the line-out," suggested O'Kelly.

TIME

"This is giving the Australians time to get their defence sorted. If you call what line-out you are going to work as you approach and then hit it quickly, you cut down the time the defence has to match you."

That the Lions are not showing ambition in the line-out is symptomatic of tactics that are limited and for the most part negative. The game plan is rudimentary. The Lions are depending on brute force and have shown very little innovation. The management clearly believe the Lions will be able to batter the Wallabies into submission.

The Australians are happy for the tourists to work off that misguided premise as they have shown they can counteract that. Wales play to the same tactics and they have not been able to beat Australia in their last eight Test meetings since 2009.

Gatland and his coaches obviously believe that this time they have the additional weaponry to make their grand plan work. The refrigerator with legs that is Sean O'Brien will be charged with battering-ram duties. The Welsh centres will be told to follow the Irishman's line and to run over defenders when the ball is recycled back.

It's not subtle and without a proper attacking platform from the line-out, it's unlikely to be any more effective than it has been when those same players have been playing for Wales.

One of the things that has surprised O'Kelly is the lack of a contest on Australian throws. The Wallabies have been proactive in dictating the Lions' selection of darts. In contrast they have been given a free hand out of touch.

"It's been obvious that the Lions have not been effective at turning over Australian ball," he said. "They have been sluggish on the ground and seem to have a watching brief rather than getting up to contest their throws.

"I don't understand why they don't just throw someone in the air and, at least, make the Australians get the ball over them. Sometimes you have to take a gamble.

"That would at least stop the Australians getting clean line-out ball every time. Anything would be an improvement because, so far, they haven't even been challenging them."

The scrum was also an area where the Australians enjoyed supremacy last weekend but it is anticipated that the availability of Alex Corbisiero and the selection of the stronger scrummaging hooker Richard Hibbard will shore up this area.

But it's the line-out that is causing most concern. It has been clear from the start that the Australians have the Lions' number and, in contrast, their own line-out, directed by the superb Ben Mowen, has been functioning smoothly.

It is an apparent contradiction that the stats from the first two Tests are not, on first reading, bad at all. They confirm that the Lions won 12 of their own throws in the first match and also hit double figures in the second.

The statistics do not tell the whole story, however. They do not reveal, for instance, how many of those darts were thrown to the front of the line-out and were not contested.

The Lions touring party of 2001 – of which O'Kelly was a member – found themselves in exactly the same position as the current tour as they faced into the third Test with the series level.

Twelve years ago, though, the Lions arrived at this juncture a team battered and bruised and, recalled O'Kelly, utterly spent. "The (Australian) win in the second Test was such a momentum turner. The Australian win came out of nowhere and guys were empty when it came to the third Test," he said.

"The scenario is different this time around, I believe. There isn't a split in the squad like there was back in 2001. There's a more 'together' feel to this squad. The Lions are absolutely in with a strong chance. Either team could win."

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