Sport Rugby

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Conor George: Lions lack ingenuity to unlock streetwise Wallabies

Gatland's bludgeoning tactics destined to come up short against team filled with game-changers

Jonathan Sexton
Jonathan Sexton
Conor George

Conor George

The Lions' prospects in the decisive third Test against Australia will stand or fall on their capacity to find the spark of ingenuity that has been conspicuously missing from their play.

Warren Gatland's squad began the tour buoyed by enthusiasm and ambition but their grand plans now teeter on the brink. They have lost two matches (one Test) and nothing but a convincing win and a stellar performance will elevate this tour above mediocrity.

Unfortunately it is impossible to see where that elusive spark of genius will come from now that their most potent weapon has been prematurely decommissioned.

Brian O'Driscoll was not outstanding in last week's Test. He was solid and he made all his tackles but he wasn't at his magical best. When O'Driscoll hums he sparkles with the effervescence of a soda-pop. Any examination of his performance must include reference to the rudimentary game plan that restricted him and denied him the opportunity to exercise his attacking instincts.

Gatland is a coach who thrives on the pragmatic and doesn't trust creativity in his midfield players. He is a coach who covets dogma and industry above individualism and imagination. This Lions team reflects his traits as a hard-nosed front-row forward.

Instead of turning to the creative genius of O'Driscoll and unleashing him at the Australians, he shackled him in the first two Tests by forcing him to adhere to a limited game plan that simply does not work against the more creative southern hemisphere sides.

To make matters worse, he finally has the perfect foil to complement O'Driscoll with the availability of Jamie Roberts. The Australians cannot believe their good fortune.

Last Saturday they very quickly realised they didn't have to concern themselves with Jonathan Davies and could afford to defend from the outside in and close down O'Driscoll in the Lions midfield. It stifled any hint of creativity.

The element of surprise is one of the most influential factors in all sports contests. It's difficult to see any potential of surprise from a Lions team that has played with boring predictability – apart from the tries from George North and Alex Cuthbert in the first Test.

Australia know what's coming. The Lions back-row will be deployed as battering-rams. Sean O'Brien et al will come around the corner, take possession from Mike Phillips and seek to kick down the front door of the Australian defence.

When that doesn't work they will look to Roberts and Davies to run over the Australian midfield.

"It (the Lions selection) gives them comfort in that they have that combination among themselves and confidence to play the way they want to play," said Will Genia.

Without explicitly saying so, Genia demonstrated why Gatland's selection has been met with so much criticism. Australia know what's coming, they know what strengths the Lions have and, critically, they know how to defend against them.

Of the 10 Welsh players included in the Lions team, only four of them were involved in 2008 when Wales last beat Australia. Jamie Roberts, Alun-Wyn Jones and Adam Jones started the game and Richard Hibbard was on the bench.

Since then Wales have lost all eight meetings between the countries.

In their head-to-head record with Australia, Wales have conceded an average of 23.17 points and scored just 14.89. What makes Gatland think those same players can improve on their return simply because the shade of red in their uniform is, perhaps, a little darker?

Australia are not an exceptional side – something they will admit privately – yet they appeared to possess more skill, more imagination and more ambition than a pedestrian Lions team in Melbourne.

The excellence of their defence kept the Lions alive last week and they were so assiduous in their concentration and so committed to their work that they were within five minutes of pulling off a great escape and winning the series.

If they are to have any hope of pulling off an unlikely victory, they desperately need their set-piece to provide them with a platform, which neither scrum nor line-out has done on tour thus far.

The need to find dominance – or at least consistency – in the scrum has been recognised with the selection of Richard Hibbard ahead of Tom Youngs. Hibbard is the most powerful scrummager of the three hookers on tour.

Alex Corbisiero's availability is a fillip to the Lions. He is a far better technician than Mako Vunipola and he can be expected to make life uncomfortable for Wallaby tighthead Ben Alexander.

Crucially the Lions finally cottoned on to the benefits of hitting through the engage on the referee's "set" instruction. After coughing up three penalties in quick succession for apparently collapsing the scrum, the Lions adapted last week.

Instead of holding on the "set" they pushed through and won the next penalty. They will continue that practice and even if the scrum collapses you can expect the second-rows to continue to drive in an effort to influence Romain Poite.

PERCEPTION

Poite is a creature of habit when it comes to the scrum and he invariably sides with the pack that is going forward, even if they pop up or it collapses. This surely has not escaped the Lions management. Sometimes perception can be stronger and more convincing than reality.

Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree has promised that the Lions "have been holding things back" and suggested they have some plays "up their sleeve" in preparation for a game they are desperate to win.

"That's the word. We're desperate to win. This is the biggest game of our lives for the players and the coaches," said Rowntree.

The hunger within the Lions squad for a victory is not in doubt. What is, however, is their ability to deliver. There is a very strong suggestion that Australia are simply better equipped, have better players, a better game plan and also have the momentum.

They finished both games the stronger and would have won the first Test had their first choice kicker, Christian Leali'ifano, lasted longer than 57 seconds.

They are not without their weaknesses, though. James O'Connor is not up to the level required at half-back. The Lions need to expose him, something they have been unable to accomplish so far.

Unquestionably, the Lions back-row has been told to target him for special attention.

The key to disrupting the Wallabies is, as ever, negating the influence of Genia, or at least restricting it.

The scrum-half is the player who makes them the home side tick and unless Mike Phillips can atone for his first Test spanking by Genia, the Test and the series will be lost.

The Lions will only score tries through a piece of individual magic from either North or Tommy Bowe. Otherwise the responsibility for success will be entrusted to Leigh Halfpenny's boot.

The Australians have a team full of game-changers. Any one of their back division – even O'Connor – are well capable of exploiting any gaps and scoring.

Unfortunately, there has been nothing in their nine games on this tour to suggest that the Lions have the wherewithal to surprise the Wallabies.

Verdict: Australia

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport