Saturday 21 October 2017

Gatland needs to rethink strategy in game of chess

Lions must utilise talisman O'Driscoll, pile pressure on Genia and sort out the scrum and line-out to have fighting chance of victory

Conor George

Conor George

ROBBIE DEANS' suggestion that this three g-me Test series is "like a game of chess" is very apt. He might also have gone further and suggested Australia have moved the Lions into a 'check' situation and are well positioned to add the 'mate'.

Australia are in control of this series. Of that there can be no doubt. They lost the first Test by just two points, despite haemorrhaging players. They also finished that game the stronger of the two sides, just as they did last Saturday.

Warren Gatland has done a lot of things right on this tour. for example, he has kept his mouth shut, something he has never been too careful about in the past.

The Australians attempted to goad him by referencing Bob Dwyer's incendiary comments about the Lions "being cheaters." Gatland batted the comments back to them with a little top-spin and won many admirers as a result of his gracious comments about the former Wallaby coach.

It was, however, a little churlish of him to question Kurtley Beale's choice of footwear after he slipped when kicking that final penalty in the first Test. Plenty of kickers wear moulded studs in the northern hemisphere and it was unnecessary.

"A little bit of gamesmanship," Deans smiled when asked about it. The Australian coach did not feel the need to question the choice of studs of Toby Faletau after the No 8 slipped with the line at his mercy during the midweek game against the Melbourne Rebels.

Indeed, Beale himself seemed bemused when asked if Leigh Halfpenny's choice of boot might have contributed to his two missed kicks in the second Test – "I don't know, you'd have to ask him mate," was Beale's answer.

As the third Test approaches there is no escaping the overwhelming certainty that Australia are in control of the board. Their pieces are strategically positioned to do the most damage. They are also being utilised properly.

Deans has a backline of play-makers, but an out-half ill-suited to the role. Yet it hasn't impacted negatively on them, because their game is based on affording them the freedom to inter-change.

"The numbers on our backs don't limit us in this team," agreed James O'Connor. "Whoever is in the best position becomes the first receiver. I found myself out wide with Kurtley standing at 10 on a couple of occasions and Christian (Leali'ifano) has played a lot at 10 in his career too.

"We mix and match."

Contrast that with the Lions. When Jonathan Sexton is wrapped up in a ruck the Lions have to go another couple of phases to allow him get back into position. They have no Plan B when Sexton is not calling the plays ... not even on the bench, where they have an inside-centre (Farrell) as Sexton's back-up.

Here is just one example of where the benefit of the doubt given to Gatland on his initial squad selection is proving ill-advised. He selected just one realistic option at out-half, yet went for three at hooker – none of whom would hit water if they fell out of a boat.

Unless Gatland and his coaches change their tactics and selection this will be yet another opportunity lost by the Lions, for Australia will surely win in Sydney.

So, what to change?

1 FREE UP O'DRISCOLL

Surely the most poignant sight at the Etihad Stadium was that of Brian O'Driscoll standing in the middle with a huge look of disappointment etched on his features.

In what is an increasingly gladiatorial arena, he is like a Lilliputian in a land of Gullivers. In the modern game O'Driscoll is an anomaly.

The midfield area in rugby is being increasingly populated by players who would have been directed to the back-row when O'Driscoll started out. But his excellence and relevance is undiminished by the passage of time

As good as Adam Ashley Cooper is, suffice to say that had Australia the advantage of O'Driscoll's service, they would have started the series as favourites. O'Driscoll's heroics will not be enough on Saturday if the Lions are to salvage the series. He needs to be freed of the shackles of a game plan that does not seem to be tailored to drawing out the best from this iconic player.

Lions attack coach Rob Howley needs to come up with a plan that facilitates O'Driscoll attacking the line himself rather than playing a distributor's role.

O'Driscoll has gorgeously soft hands and he has this ability to see colleagues in space and, crucially, find them.

But he also has great evasion skills and these are not being maximised in the Lions power game. Nobody would dare suggest that much of Leinster's game is not based on the ability of their strong players to bully the opposition, but Joe Schmidt was also able to maximise O'Driscoll which is something the Lions are not doing.

The tourists need more impact from O'Driscoll and this means deploying him as the tip of the attacking spear and not just the conduit for others.

2 DEFENCE

The Lions need to put more defensive pressure on Will Genia. this would see Conor Murray starting on Saturday and being told to frustrate the hell out of the Wallaby talisman.

The most Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs managed was to shadow their opposite number and never shut him down. He had a free hand to play to his runners and this absolutely killed the Lions as it kept them pinned back.

They need to get at him harder and not afford him the latitude he has so far enjoyed. Murray is the form scrum-half. He is aggressive and will get in Genia's face. This is the time for Gatland to reward form and set the Irishman on a mission. The impact Murray had on the game is surely not lost on Gatland and his coaches?

3 COACHING/TACTICS

The Lions scrum was a mess and the folly of not making room for the one tighthead who can definitely lock out a scrum – Mike Ross – has been exposed.

The loss of Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins has also been felt. The front-row is Graham Rowntree's domain and he has fallen down on his job. Manu Vunipola was turned inside out by Ben Alexander and with Benn Robinson performing similar acts on the far side the Lions primary set-piece platform was in disarray for long periods.

One of the problems was that, where the Lions front-row was 'holding' on the set command, the Wallabies were hitting through the call, which made it look like the Lions were collapsing it. There was an immediate shift when the Lions started to hit through the engage before they reverted to type when Dan Cole replaced Adam Jones.

There is limited scope for improvement in a week, but what the front-row needs to be told is to hit through on every engagement and, at the very least, make the Wallabies work for the ball and for scrum supremacy.

4 LINE-OUT

Paul O'Connell is a huge loss to overcome, but the Lions cannot continue to ignore the line-out as a potential platform from which to attack.

By consistently going to the front Sexton is not afforded front-foot ball and this has a knock-on effect. It allows the defending team to push their defence up and squeezes an attacking backline. Sexton wants quick ball off the top from the middle or the tail of the line, so he can stand flatter and get his outside backs coming up at speed and through gaps he creates.

The problem with this is, the lack of accuracy and consistency from the Lions hookers. But if they continue to give the Australians dominance out of touch, the series will be lost.

Irish Independent

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