Tuesday 17 October 2017

O'Connell injury rocks Lions

Gatland's charges must show huge improvement with or without the talismanic Munster giant if they are to seal series success over Aussies

Conor George

Conor George

PAUL O'CONNELL'S third and final Lions' tour was hanging by a thread after it emerged he suffered an arm injury on Saturday night.

Reports flooded in that the talismanic second-row was already on his way home to Ireland as the Lions camp remained tight-lipped on unconfirmed reports he fractured a bone in his arm in the opening Test.

This came after Warren Gatland's emphatic assurances that prop forward Alex Corbisiero's "tight" calf muscle was the only slight concern.

"We spoke to the medics afterwards and the only concern was Alex Corbisiero in terms of how his calf was going to react," Gatland stated.

"Everyone else seems to have come through okay."

It is incredible to think that nine hours after the Lions coach's declaration, it emerged that O'Connell, one of the pillars of the Lions' series chances, is in danger of having his tour cruelly cut short by an injury Gatland claimed didn't exist.

And the concern over Corbisiero's "slight tightening of the calf" was so worrying that the Lions have taken advantage of Tom Court being 'at home' on holiday in Brisbane and recruited the Ireland and Ulster prop.

The squad count – including O'Connell – now stands at 43. If O'Connell is forced to depart, then it will be a potentially ruinous development and has helped take further sheen off a win the Lions scarcely deserved on Saturday.

Indeed, it was bizarre to hear Gatland claim after the game that the Lions "deserved the win," although not as inexplicable as his injury update.

When probed about his assessment of the victory, Gatland's response was pock-marked with flaws.

"First of all, because of the scoreboard. And we were the only side to play a bit of rugby. It wasn't the prettiest, but we deserved it," he claimed.

The scoreboard certainly was in their favour, but his claim that his Lions side was the play-making one was misleading and, frankly, erroneous. Whenever the game opened up the Lions were in trouble.

Australia, cajoled into playing rugby that was often more progressive and attractive by their skilful scrum-half Will Genia, deserved better, but the pay-off was very positive for the Lions.

George North and Alex Cuthbert scored tries of top quality and surely the salutary lesson learned by Gatland regarding his initial selection and his replacement policy will see a much improved performance by the Lions management next weekend.

For certain, Tommy Bowe must come into consideration to start – "Tommy's a world-class player. We wouldn't have risked George North on Saturday if we weren't confident of Tommy's fitness for next weekend," said Gatland – and there should be other changes too.

Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray will also challenge for places in the Test 23, if not the starting team.

Mike Phillips was comprehensively outplayed by his opposite number and his lack of pace was exposed when the Genia scorched past him in the lead-up to Israel Folau's opening try.

It might be something of a leap, but since breaking through in Ireland, Murray has consistently shown his ability to rise to the next level and he has not looked out of place on this tour.

His relationship with Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip would also benefit the Lions in an attacking capacity while Brian O'Driscoll would surely thrive outside them again.

Similarly, Sean O'Brien's ball-carrying strengths would have been ideal in the final 20 minutes of Saturday's game. Tom Croft offers a great line-out option, but surely the presence of Heaslip, O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones diluted the need for him in this regard?

The Lions desperately need a stronger performance next Saturday. That they were within one kick of being beaten by a team who lost their first choice kicker in the first minute and played the last 30 minutes of the game with their open-side flanker at inside centre, is hugely concerning.

It will also be a major worry to the Lions that had Christian Leali'ifano not been injured in that first-minute tackle by Jonathan Davies, the Wallabies' first choice goal-kicker would surely have enjoyed a better return than either James O'Connor or Kurtley Beale.

With all the focus on Beale's two late misses – "I couldn't believe he was wearing moulded studs," said Gatland – O'Connor's misses, especially his two first-half shanks, have been overlooked. In all, the Wallabies left 14 points behind them on Saturday night.

They must also learn to use their advantages better. Some of the Lions' play in a first half they dominated territorially (69pc) was self-indulgent, while the Wallabies were more economical, concentrating more on making the most of their opportunities.

The Lions management made a lot of their seven line-breaks as opposed to the Australians' two, but the home side scored two first-half tries, despite spending much of the opening 40 in their own half with less possession.

TALENT

When they had the ball, they moved smoothly into offence and their one-touch passing moves cut a swathe through the Lions' defence for both tries.

When you have a talent as prodigious as Folau in your side, two line-breaks are often all you need.

"Israel's got confidence in his ability," gushed Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. "He's got fast feet, a great offload. He's a talent. We need to utilise him more."

That could be at full-back in Barnes' absence and where he plays all his football with the Waratahs – and where he is most comfortable.

The Lions will be hoping that Saturday's referee, South African Craig Joubert, will have a different interpretation of the breakdown than Chris Pollock did.

The New Zealander's interpretation was hugely influential.

Three times O'Driscoll was penalised in the opening minutes for allegedly going off his feet, when he would, if playing in the northern hemisphere, have expected the penalty award.

The third time he clearly stayed on his feet and was heard pleading with the referee to "look at the video."

It affected his play as he and his team-mates were a little timid as if they were conscious of operating under the control of a referee applying a very personal understanding of the laws.

Overall, the sum total of the Lions' night's work certainly helps add to the optimism that has been fostered so promisingly on tour so far.

They won the match without playing well and have the potential to play much better.

They are in control of the series at this juncture and can wrap it up next weekend, but will only do so if they show massive improvement.

And if Gatland selects the right team. But one thing is certain... the Australians will come back all the stronger and more dangerous.

It was going to be a difficult ask under the best of circumstances. If the Lions have to do so without O'Connell it might just prove impossible.

Australia – B Barnes (K Beale 38); I Folau, A A Cooper (N Phillps 77), C Leali'ifano (P McCabe 1 (L Gill 47), D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson (J Slipper 69), S Moore, B Alexander (S Kepu 57), K Douglas (R Simmons 68), J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu.

Lions – L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips (B Youngs 62); A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 51), T Youngs (R Hibbard 65), A Jones (D Cole 51), A Wyn Jones (G Parling 71), P O'Connell, T Croft (D Lydiate 72), S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip.

Ref – C Pollock (New Zealand)

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