Monday 26 February 2018

Do-or-die Aussies set to target comeback kid Bowe

Ireland winger facing severe examination as Deans' fired-up Wallabies set to cut loose

Tommy Bowe can expect to be bombarded by Australia on his return from injury for today's critical second Test in Melbourne.

Bowe's rapid return after breaking a bone in his hand just three weeks ago will inevitably attract attention from the ambitious Australians, eager to test him physically and mentally in the white-heat of combat.

Bowe's natural courage can never be questioned after a career with the Ospreys and Ulster, but Australia will look to see if his unfortunate injury has left a scar deeper than a mere flesh wound.

For sure, Bowe would not have been parachuted into the team after three weeks without a match unless the medical advice was 100pc in favour.

But no amount of training and treatment can test any injury as forensically as the stresses and strains of competition.

Bowe will surely find Australia's out-half James O'Connor angling garryowens in his direction and the human fire-engines that are Israel Falou, Ashley-Cooper, Ben Mowen and even his direct opposition Joe Tomane will seek to charge down his wing and test his resolve.

Bowe is seen by the Australians as one of the Lions' truly world-class players. They remember him from the 2011 World Cup and Ireland's surprise victory in Eden Park.

The Australians have been very disciplined during the last fortnight as they ensured they were seen to publicly pay the Lions players due respect. Scratch just below the surface, though, and it is clear they don't rate too many of the Lions.

They make the right noises, but the reality is, they believe they are better than the Lions. This belief has been strengthened after last week's game when they overcame a crippling injury crisis to finish within one kick of victory.

On that evidence, it's hard to disagree with them. The advantage has switched back to Australia and in some ways Robbie Deans has ended up with a stronger team than the one that started last weekend's game.

Certainly, the presence of Kurtley Beale at full-back offers them endless attacking possibilities and it is entirely probable winger Tomane would have started in the first Test but for the toe injury he sustained in training.

When you throw in the availability of their first choice inside-centre and place-kicker Christian Leali'ifano, as well as captain James Horwill, and juxtapose that with the Lions not having Paul O'Connell available and there is no escape from the overbearing belief that Australia will level the series today.

The loss of O'Connell is potentially fatal for the Lions in terms of their line-out play. They have struggled with that facet of their game in his absence on this tour. Much has been made of Geoff Parling's ability as a technician in this area, but the Lions have not replaced like with like.

Australia made a good fist of curbing O'Connell's influence out of touch by squeezing the middle and the tail on the Lions' throws and forcing them to throw mostly to the front. This had the knock- on effect of ensuring slower ball reached Sexton.


What is even more damaging for the Lions is the loss of O'Connell at the breakdown. He has been consistently turning over three and four balls in every game on tour and there has been nothing to indicate the Lions have someone capable of a comparable return.

That this is causing them concern has been obvious this week, with both Warren Gatland and Rob Howley going on a charm offensive when discussing referee Craig Joubert.

"With Craig there will be clear and accurate communication throughout the game, which is great," said Howley.

It has not been subtle from the Lions management, which isn't a surprise. They coughed up far too many penalties last week, with Brian O'Driscoll deemed culpable three times in quick succession by referee Chris Pollock.

Gatland revealed afterwards it had affected O'Driscoll's approach, as the fear of receiving a yellow card dissuaded him from contesting at the breakdown for the rest of the game.

The Lions will vigorously contest the breakdown this weekend, which is clearly signposted by the make-up of their squad and their team selection.

Dan Lydiate has been included for his physicality, while Ben Youngs will be charged with getting the ball away from the base quicker than Mike Phillips. He will also be told to harass Will Genia more than the Welsh international was able to.

It's the presence of Sean O'Brien on the bench and the lack of a specialist replacement lock that is the biggest indication that the Lions see this game being won and lost in the tight. For certain, they will seek to get their wide men into space, but their game will be based on winning the war in the trenches.

O'Brien will be unleashed on the Australians with 30 minutes to go and told to bulldoze his way through what they hope will be a leg-weary Wallaby side.

That's the Lions game plan. Unfortunately for them, the Wallabies will have their own plans for winning this Test and rescuing the series. The advantage in the pack is with them and their midfield will be stronger with the availability of Leali'ifano. He, Beale and O'Connor will also spend time as the first receiver to Genia and they will seek to make things happen out wide.

They know Folau can penetrate Andy Farrell's defensive plan – he did so twice last weekend – and they will get the ball to him as often and as quickly as possible. Beale also poses an extra threat. He joins the line brilliantly and takes fantastic angles off O'Connor and Leali'ifano. With only a couple of possessions he showed an ability to tear the Lions line to shreds. He will be extra motivated after his midweek shenanigans.

The Lions have emphasised their ability and willingness to play football on this tour and prove themselves the equal of the Australians and they certainly have some excellent ball players, not least Brian O'Driscoll. So much, however, hinges on winning the big collisions and exerting an influence at scrum and line-out. The first 20 minutes will be explosive as both sides seek to impose their will on the trend and establish a superiority that should be decisive.

The Australians showed they are capable of playing with expansive ambition from the very start when they scored the first try of the game through Folau last week. That preparedness to trust their handling skills, their fleetness of foot and their elusiveness is what defines them.

They would love a loosely structured and open contest and all their preparations suggest this is what they are angling for. The surface under the roof in Melbourne will be hard and fast and will favour their more athletic players.

The Lions game plan this weekend will be more rudimentary. They will seek to play a more physical and direct game, while the Australians will play more football and will win.

Verdict: Australia

Australia v Lions,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 11.05

Irish Independent

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