Friday 20 October 2017

Tony Ward: Lions chances in hands of Irish core

Jonathan Sexton during kicking
practice at the Suncorp Stadium
in Brisbane yesterday
Jonathan Sexton during kicking practice at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane yesterday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Maybe we're getting grumpy and more demanding in old age but so far – Brumbies defeat included – the 2013 Lions sojourn has done nothing to enhance the history and tradition of this great touring entity.

For starters, the fact that Robbie Deans, in agreement with the Australian Rugby Union, was allowed withdraw the Test players from all five Australian professional franchises smacked of disrespect in the extreme.

The Brumbies may have shaded it in Canberra, but, so far, there has been little evidence to suggest that Australian rugby has been remotely close to matching South Africa or New Zealand in terms of hosting a Lions tour.

And given the arrogant stance in withdrawing players from what should have been the biggest matches they have ever hosted, the ARU and by extension the Reds (Queensland), the Waratahs (New South Wales), the Brumbies (ACT), the Rebels (Victoria) and, most particularly, the Force (Western Australia) don't deserve the 12-yearly privilege of hosting a Lions match.

CHARADE

To describe what has transpired so far as even 'sparring' would do that boxing term a disservice. From the pantomime in Hong Kong to today's run-out at Suncorp, it's been one non-event after another. Heaven help the many thousands of British and Irish supporters who have paid top dollar for the privilege.

At least the charade is over and the real rugby is beginning. Much like 2001 at the Gabba (Queensland Cricket Ground), when the Lions masses con-verged on Brisbane, Brian O'Driscoll waltzed and the Lions romped home in the opening Test, nobody knows what to expect 12 years on.

This will be Australia's first international of 2013, while it is this Lions Test XV's first outing as a unit. thus, there is no form guide, no book of pre-match evidence on which to draw.

For coaches Deans and Warren Gatland, while neither proud Kiwi will admit it, this opening test represents the definitive shot in the dark.

Sure the Wallabies have some sketchy pre-test evidence of their opposition on which to draw, while, in terms of Australia's players, the Lions' back-room team has had little or nothing to analyse.

And while we are tempted to believe the result in the opening Test could determine the series, the one-sided romp for the Lions in 2001 suggests otherwise.

So, what to expect? Well, from an Irish perspective, a solid presence down the spine of the side from Paul O'Connell, through Jamie Heaslip to Jonny Sexton alongside O'Driscoll at the heart of the attack.

Had they been fit, Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe would also have been shoo-ins at loose head and right-wing respectively. Even in their significant absence, the Irish influence will still be central to winning aspirations.

Sexton may not be goal kicking, but in every other possible way he is the orchestrator-in-chief.

Gatland may well come to regret not naming Sean O'Brien in reserve, where along with Mako Vunipola and Ben Youngs (despite Conor Murray's consistent form) that instant impact off the bench is all but guaranteed.

At least the Lions, despite the lack of strong opposition thus far, have had a reasonable amount of game time. The Wallabies, by contrast, don't know what to expect of themselves or of each other. I suppose it adds to that first Test fascination.

Modern-day media hype surrounding the Lions is way over the top and has never been more so than in advance of and throughout this tour.

That said, any Test series involving the Lions south of the equator is special. Expect this to be no different, but I suspect bookies whether here or Down Under will be quaking in their boots, given this maiden voyage into the unknown.

Assuming lessons have been learnt from that Lions tour de force in the corresponding fixture 12 years ago, I expect the Wallabies to hit the ground running and secure an opening Test success again this time around.

What happens beyond that is up in the air, but once Deans and Gatland give it their best shot today, we will at least possess a better picture of what kind of shape the respective squads are in.

Following the phoney war, and irrespective of the Brisbane outcome, the real rugby is finally here. Thank God for that.

Irish Independent

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