Thursday 22 March 2018

Defeat has derailed bandwagon but now selection is clearer

Will Greenwood

Welcome to the Lions tour proper. In the space of five days we have seen their best and worst games.

The ACT Brumbies always threatened to be the Lions' banana-skin team, coming so close to the first Test and with the players realising that they were probably going to play only bit-parts on the bigger stage.

In a cold and unforgiving Canberra, in the last game before the first Test, the Lions were suddenly made to look vulnerable and confused. It was a harsh place to be and the Brumbies side and crowd revelled in just how uncomfortable the Lions looked.

You could blame any number of factors, such as the weather, or the fact that most the back-line had flown in from some other continent only a day or so earlier, or the quality of a Brumbies squad who have topped the Super Rugby table and were set to become the first Australian provincial side to beat the Lions since 1971. Pick whichever one or combination of causes you like because their impact would have been the same. The Lions were deflated.

Rory Best, the captain and hooker, was a gracious loser who looked as if his worst rugby nightmare had come true after misfiring so often during the match. Gatland was pensive and flat when I spoke to him, which is unsurprising because he now has a lot of decision making to do.

Oddly enough, however, the pain of the defeat, as jarring as it might be, may actually make his life easier. He now has a much clearer idea of who can deliver what is needed in the first Test, and he has been given a sharp reminder that you need solid combinations in key positions if you want to win in Australia.

At the same time, we must not forget that the build-up to the first Test has been a decidedly one-sided affair. The Wallabies have been holed up and hiding away, making their preparations and plotting their masterstrokes.

Depending on the rumours you want to believe they will either be very good or very bad when they are unveiled. Robbie Deans has never been one to bow to public opinion, but you would be hard pushed to see him trying to smash the Lions up front.

The teams that have played the Lions so far have been best served when they have gone after the tourists with speed, quick ball and a certain level of planned unpredictability.

Width, clever angles, speed to the breakdown and a willingness to run from odd places can destabilise even the best of teams. Against relatively new combinations they can be decisive.

Gatland will have to pick players who will work best together, because there will be long periods when the Lions will be under intense pressure, and how they react to these will make the difference between winning and losing. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Will's Wonders: The XV Gatland should pick ...

15 Leigh Halfpenny

Wales full-back is an awesome player who could be the man to win the series.

14 Simon Zebo

Plays as second receiver, high-ball guru, great left peg. Defensively very clever. Harsh on Cuthbert.

13 Brian O'Driscoll

Hardest selection because Jonathan Davies has been so strong and consistent. But BOD is a man who wins Test matches. He is a player of destiny.

12 Jamie Roberts/Jonathan Davies

Roberts is a big-game player and only his hamstring can deny him. If missing, then Davies has to slot in.

11 George North

Does damage on the flanks but causes carnage in the midfield and in and around a breakdown.

10 Jonathan Sexton

Injury means we have not seem him at his best, but is ready to pull the strings again.

9 Mike Phillips

A big athletic runner who likes the template the Lions are playing.

1 Mako Vunipola

May have come as third choice but injuries have propelled him forward and he has grabbed opportunity.

2 Tom Youngs

You may prefer Hibbard, but for his huge carries and set-piece work, it is Youngs.

3 Adam Jones

Dan Cole had a huge impact off the bench against the Reds, Jones holds him off.

4 Alun Wyn Jones

Jones v Waratahs was exceptional and set the bar for other second-rows.

5 Paul O'Connell

Man to have in changing room five minutes pre-kick-off.

6 Tom Croft

Croft's pace, line-out skills, and breakdown work means Gatland cannot ignore him.

7 Sam Warburton

Did enough v New South Wales and will keep getting better.

8 Toby Faletau

Tremendous battle with Heaslip. I just think Faletau is of the highest calibre. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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